If you feel like you aren’t getting enough sleep, you’re not alone. Results from the 2020 Canadian Community Health Survey show that 23% of adults aged 18 to 64 are not meeting sleep duration guidelines: in adults aged 65 and older, this figure rises to 45%.

The Canadian 24-Hour Movement Guidelines state that those aged 18 to 64 should get 7 to 9 hours of good quality sleep, and those over the age of 65 should get 7 to 8 hours of rest each night. Sleep deprivation — both acute and chronic — can have far-reaching effects on our memory, cognition, mood, and general health. A sufficient amount of good sleep, on the other hand, can deliver a range of benefits to the body and mind.

Affects emotions and social interactions

When we don’t sleep enough, our emotional reactivity and social functioning can be affected. A 2010 study asked individuals to perform an emotional face recognition task after a restful sleep and again when they were sleep deprived. It found that lack of sleep impairs the accurate judgement of human facial emotions, especially those associated with threat (anger) and reward (happiness).

Another study from 2016 which examined emotional dysregulation and sleep quality among young women demonstrated a link between positive mood and better sleep quality, while negative mood was directly and indirectly associated with poorer sleep quality. A growing body of research suggests that when we are well-rested, our brains are better equipped to process emotions and handle social interactions. 

Healthy heart

Over time, not getting enough sleep can put strain on the body in a number of ways. Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada advises that long-term sleep deprivation may lead to increased risk of coronary artery disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes.

The sympathetic nervous system is a structure of nerves that helps your body trigger its “fight-or-flight” response. Not getting enough sleep can cause increased sympathetic nervous system activity — which typically occurs when you're physically active, in danger, or stressed — and this is considered to be a key link to sleep deprivation’s association with coronary heart disease and diabetes. Lack of sleep can also elevate cholesterol levels and raise the likelihood of stroke and heart attack from cardiovascular disease.

Conversely, getting enough good rest gives your body the opportunity to carry out important physiological processes that help repair and regulate the heart.

Improves memory

Over the short-term and in the long run, sleep deprivation can have detrimental effects on memory. The hippocampus is a structure within the brain’s temporal lobe that plays a critical role in learning and memory consolidation: when we don’t sleep enough, the hippocampus is affected and so is our ability to retain information.

Procedural memory is a type of implicit memory involved in activities that require the performance of actions or skills, such as riding a bike, solving a puzzle, or playing a musical instrument. Research indicates that sleep helps us to remember and recall what we learn, and there is evidence to suggest that rapid eye movement (REM) sleep can bolster procedural memory.

Reduces stress

Stress and sleep share a close relationship. Without enough sleep, we can become stressed — and when we’re stressed, we may find it more difficult to fall asleep. A survey from the American Psychological Association saw 37% of adult respondents reporting fatigue or tiredness because of stress. Survey participants who slept fewer than eight hours a night also recorded higher stress levels than those who slept at least eight hours a night.

Sleep deprivation renders you more susceptible to stress and can affect your mood, emotional reactivity, and social functioning. A 2019 study found that even one sleepless night can cause anxiety levels to soar by up to 30%. Getting enough good sleep, however, can balance your emotions and prepare your body and mind to cope with stress.

Healthy immune system

The immune system comprises an intricate network of organs, proteins, and cells that help the body fight infection whilst protecting its own cells. Proteins called cytokines are released by the immune system during sleep: when you are stressed, dealing with an infection, or experiencing inflammation, the body needs an increased amount of certain types of cytokines. Lack of sleep may hinder the production of protective cytokines, preventing the immune system from working to the best of its ability. Furthermore, levels of antibodies and cells that fend off infection are reduced during spells of sleep deprivation.  

As we sleep, our bodies and immune systems are given the chance to rest and recover from the activities and stressors of daily life. A sufficient amount of high-quality sleep can help ensure the health and function of your immune system.

Improve concentration and productivity

Sleep is essential to many brain functions. Without sleep, our concentration and performance are impaired. Attention is a cognitive function that is particularly influenced by sleep loss: studies have shown that when people are sleep deprived, their ability to perform two tasks simultaneously deteriorates. Another study involving overworked doctors found that participants with moderate to very high sleep-related impairment were much more likely to report significant medical errors.

On the other hand, getting a sufficient amount of rest can improve concentration and boost productivity. The benefits that come with being well-rested are plentiful and they extend beyond our health: there is evidence to suggest that better sleep quality is associated with a higher quality of life.

If you’re striving to get more sleep, it’s important to practise good sleep hygiene and stick to a consistent sleep schedule. Avoid stimulants like caffeine and nicotine close to bedtime, and take steps to ensure your sleeping environment is as dark, comfortable, and quiet as possible.

If problems with sleep are beginning to affect your day-to-day life, consult your doctor for guidance and treatment.