If you consider sleep a luxury or live by the motto “I’ll sleep when I’m dead,” (like you most likely did in college), let this be your wake-up call. When you don’t get enough zzz’s, all aspects of your health fall apart, including your gut health, metabolism, sports performance and productivity.
So how much sleep does your body really need? With these expert-backed tips, you’ll check exhaustion at the door and start cozying up to better sleep.
According to Dr. Wayne Scott Andersen, MD medical director of the Take Shape for Life, "sleep is one of the most under-appreciated facets of health." Without enough sleep, it "can affect you in various other parts of your life. Exhaustion has been linked to issues with appetite regulation, heart disease, increased inflammation, and a 50 percent increase in your risk of viral infection.” Recent research also found a link between exhausted immune cells — bouts of little sleep can run down your immune system — and IBS symptoms. Now, don't let this freak you out, it just means when you think you are getting sick, or are feeling run down, be aware you are probably not getting enough beauty sleep to start with. Here are 5 signs that you are not getting enough sleep:
1. Your mind is all fuzzy
Your brain needs sleep like a car needs gas; neither runs very well on empty. “Among other things, your body uses sleep to stabilize chemical imbalances, to refresh areas of the brain that control mood and behavior, and to process the memories and knowledge that you gathered throughout the day,” says Dr. Andersen.
This is especially important during the 90-minute period known as REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. When your REM cycle is disturbed, your mind might be sluggish the next day. “You won’t retain knowledge very well, as your brain depends on sleep to re-process what you experienced during the day,” says Dr. Andersen. Further, "exhaustion can leave you vulnerable to forgetting important things, like a big meeting at work, or feeling especially irritable."
2. Your workouts have sucked
Not crushing it at the gym like you usually do? Not feeling as motivated to get after it? Being exhausted causes every aspect of your life to suffer — including exercise, according to Dr. Andersen. “Exercising requires mental focus as well as physical activity. If your brain is falling behind because you are not well-rested, your ability to properly challenge your body will be limited — and that’s in addition to the many performance consequences that come with poor sleep.”
Another big sign: You can’t even bring yourself to make it to the gym. “Our bodies are programmed to find the easy way out, which was useful 10,000 years ago when survival was difficult. Today that means one night of lost sleep can lead to weeks of missed workouts and unhealthy meals."
3. You’re super stressed (and trying to ignore it)
It’s no surprise that stress can keep you up at night, but the way you deal with it is what might cause exhaustion-inducing insomnia, according to research in the Journal Sleep. For the study, researchers asked nearly 2,900 men and women about the stress in their lives, including how long it affected them, how severe it was, and how they handled the pressure. A year later, the researchers found that people who coped with stress by distracting themselves, dwelling on the issues, or trying to completely ignore it, had higher instances of chronic insomnia, which they characterized as three sleepless nights a week for a month or more. This can turn into a vicious cycle of stress and exhaustion fueling one other.
4. You’re eating more junk than usual
Find yourself hitting up the office vending machine on the regular? “The more exhausted you are, the more you crave high-fat, high-carbohydrate foods,” says Dr. Michael Breus, a sleep expert. Exhaustion often corresponds with high levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. To decrease cortisol, your brain will often seek out a hit of the neurotransmitter serotonin. “[Serotonin] is a calming hormone. An easy way to access it is by ingesting comfort food full of carbs and fat,” says Breus.
Even worse, all that junk food can just wind up making you more exhausted. “With highly processed, highly glycemic foods like soft drinks, candy bars, or bagels, blood sugar and insulin levels will rise dramatically,” reiterates Dr. Anderson. “The elevated insulin levels actually cause blood sugar to plummet, so your brain triggers [more] cravings for something full of sugar, fat, and calories.” Then, it starts all over again. Instead of reaching for comforting junk, Dr. Andersen recommends fueling your body with healthy low-glycemic foods like fruits and whole grains that can help stabilize your blood sugar and keep your insulin levels from swinging wildly in either direction.
5. You sleep poorly even once a week
You probably know that chronic insomnia can trigger exhaustion. But did you know that even a single night of interrupted sleep can throw off your schedule for the next day? In a study in the journal Sleep Medicine, 61 study participants slept for eight hours for one night. The next night, their rest was interrupted by four phone calls that instructed them to finish a short computer challenge before they could continue sleeping. Researchers found that after a night of fragmented sleep people experienced worse moods along with weaker attention spans, suggesting that interrupted sleep might be as detrimental as the exhaustion that comes with full-on sleep restriction.
Or, maybe instead of dealing with interrupted sleep, you just go to bed way later than you should. “Bedtime procrastination” is a buzzy term in sleep medicine. In a study in Frontiers in Medicine, researchers discovered that on nights when the 177 participants reported procrastinating their zzz’s, they slept less and with worse quality. Plus, they experienced more intense fatigue the next day. “Set your bedtime and stick to it, counting back seven hours from when you need to wake up to determine the ideal start to your sleep latency period, or falling asleep time,” advises Dr. Andersen.
So next time you are scrolling through instagram at midnight (we all do it!), just remember: Sleep is more important!