Why Sleep Matters More Than Ever

Our mental health, physical wellbeing, and social interactions all depend on our ability to get good rest. Here's how to sleep better tonight.

A man in a blue shirt rests his head on a pillow in a bed with white sheets and linens. Right now, sleep matters more than ever.
Tara Moore / Getty Images

If you're like me, you might have noticed that pandemic life has turned your sleep inside out. Due to my busy work schedule and not enough downtime, I often stay up too late, getting trapped in the dreaded cycle of "revenge bedtime procrastination."

Instead of winding down with a cup of tea, I scroll social media, play Wordle, and browse. But my late-night shenanigans come with a hefty toll, leaving me groggy and grumpy in the morning. These aftershocks are a stark reminder of the importance of quality rest.

And I know I’m not alone.

In the past two years, we’ve been smacked with a tsunami of stress. We’ve weathered COVID-19, work adjustments, political discord, and isolation from friends and family. And according to the American Psychological Association (APA), Americans have reported growing levels of stress over the course of the pandemic.

For 84% of Americans, stress-related emotions like anger, sadness, and anxiety pop up at least once a week. In addition, 74% of us feel burnt out from time to time, and this stress syndrome can lead to insomnia.

Put simply, stress is a sleep saboteur.

One poll found that when tensions mount, we’re hit with a double whammy: We sleep less, and the quality of our sleep suffers. In fact, just one sleepless night can raise anxiety levels by 30%.

This might explain why 49% of stressed-out adults aren’t sleeping enough — because their minds race as soon as their heads hit their pillows. This worry rollercoaster can make sleep deprivation worse, which ultimately makes stress swell.

One key to stopping this 'stress-sleep cycle' is getting a decent amount of shut-eye. Because just like regular exercise and healthy eating, sleep is vital for your health and well-being.

Here’s a mini refresher that explains why.

Sleep helps your body function

A good night of rest fuels your mind and body, which is why the CDC recommends sleeping for 7 to 9 hours each night. Sleeping well allows our bodies to rest and recharge, which gives us the energy to tackle a new day.

When you’re asleep, your brain and body perform essential tasks that benefit your physical health. For instance, your immune system releases proteins called 'cytokines,' which are first-line defenders against illness and inflammation.

When you’re sick, your body produces more of these protective proteins, which helps fight off infections. However, when you're sleep-deprived and run down, cytokine production may dip, making you more vulnerable to colds, the flu, and other viruses.

Sleep is also beneficial for your heart health. As you slumber, your blood pressure and heart rate decrease, which gives your cardiovascular system a chance to slow down. In addition, deep sleep, also called "non-rapid eye movement (NREM) slow-wave sleep," promotes muscle development and helps repair damaged cells and tissue.

So, how can sleep deprivation hurt our physical health? According to sleep researchers, dozing for less than 7 hours each night can lead to a carousel of concerns, including:

  • weight gain 
  • diabetes 
  • high blood pressure 
  • heart disease 
  • lower immune system 
  • stroke 

Good sleep, however, is like taking a daily dose of Vitamin C. It’s preventive medicine, which can keep your physical health in check, and give you strength to weather life’s ups and downs with greater ease.

Beauty sleep is good for your skin

Have you heard the age-old saying, “get your beauty rest?” While these words might seem antiquated, there’s evidence that adequate sleep benefits your skin, which is the largest organ of your body.

When you’re asleep, hormone production kicks in and blood flow increases, which helps your body produce collagen, a protein that repairs skin and prevents wrinkles. However, sleeping fewer than 6 hours each night can cause dehydration, which can damage skin health.

Skimping on sleep can also increase production of the hormone cortisol. When this stress serum spikes, inflammation can follow, which can cause skin flare-ups, as well as make your eyes red and puffy.

On the upside, solid slumber can help you feel better about your appearance. And this relationship breeds positive results because an optimistic outlook tends to bolster self-confidence and reinforce self-care.

Sleep impacts our mental health

If you’re like me, you may notice that a little lost sleep can make you feel slightly surly. That’s because cutting back on sleep can wreak havoc on our mental health. In fact, you don’t even have to rack up a considerable amount of sleep debt to feel the consequences.

One recent study found that sleeping less than 6 hours each night for three consecutive nights can make us irritable, nervous, lonely, and frustrated. And sleep debt builds exponentially, meaning that you can’t just make it up with a bit of extra rest over the weekend. Irregular sleep, whether staying up too late or not getting enough shut-eye, can also increase your risk factors for generalized anxiety disorder and depression, among other concerns.

Like stress, the relationship between mental health and sleep goes both ways. Therefore, symptoms of anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder can make sleep worse. Experts also remind us that worry and fear catapult the body into a state of hyperarousal, which can lead to rumination and sleep problems.

However, that’s not the end of the story. Good sleep, especially REM sleep, helps the brain process thoughts and memories, improving mental health and fostering optimism.

In addition, sleep hygiene, mindfulness, and cognitive-behavioral therapy are clinically proven tools that can keep your sleep and psychological health in tip top shape.

Sleeping well also reaps these emotional benefits:

  • improves attention span 
  • improves decision-making  
  • regulates emotions 
  • fosters creativity  
  • lowers the risk of depression and anxiety 

Sleep deprivation jostles social interactions

Perhaps this scenario sounds familiar: After a night of lost sleep, you have a disagreement with a friend, but instead of brushing the run-in off, you snap and say something you don't mean.

Losing your cool might make you feel like a bad friend, but research tells us that inadequate sleep can erode social interactions.

In his book, “The Sleep Solution,” neurologist and Sleep.com Sleep Advisor Dr. Chris Winter says that the brain goes into survival mode when we're sleep-deprived. This means that it shuts down non-essentials to focus on meeting our basic needs like eating, moving, and getting more rest.

With less gas in our tanks, there’s not enough energy to effectively communicate with our partners, friends, and co-workers. In fact, when we’re short on shut-eye, small talk with a stranger or a phone call with a colleague might make us downright irritable.

That’s because sleep deprivation upsets the amygdala, the part of the brain that serves as our emotional thermostat. And when the amygdala is off-kilter, neurotransmitter production can flare or dip, which can make us overreact, Winter tells us.

Having outsized reactions can turn tiny misunderstandings into bigger conflicts, which can upset our relationships. For example, think of a sleep-deprived toddler having a full-on meltdown at the grocery store. Likewise, when we're under-rested, our emotions get the best of us, making us more anxious, more sad, and more angry.

On the upside, good sleep lets us put our best foot forward, which makes for better social interactions and connections all around.

How to get better sleep tonight

Over the course of the pandemic, many people have reported feelings of powerlessness. And while there’s much that is uncontrollable, sleep is one of the small ways that we can strive to set ourselves up for better health, logic, and wellbeing.

Whether you aim for 15 more minutes per night, or a way to stop waking up at 3 a.m., small changes can make a marked and lasting difference.

Now that you’ve learned why sleep matters, keep in mind that you don’t need to overhaul your entire routine to sleep better. Small changes like 20 minutes of Pilates before bed or taking 5 minutes to write in your journal can go a long way.

In the end, tweaking your sleep habits can lead to new routines that benefit your physical and emotional well-being for years to come, making it something that’s important to strive for today.