What if someone told you there was a magic potion by which you could prevent disease, improve your intellect, reduce your stress and be nicer to your family while you're all cooped up together during the pandemic?
It turns out that sleep, according to numerous studies, is the answer. It's the preventive medicine for conditions related to our physical, mental and emotional health. And despite how important sleep is, it can be difficult to make it a priority.
"During a pandemic such as Covid-19, there's a potential to induce or exacerbate many sleep issues," Dr. Matthew Schmitt, a doctor of sleep medicine at Piedmont Healthcare in Georgia, told CNN.
"A lack of quality sleep not only affects how we feel during the daytime, but can also impair our immune system function, which is vital in protecting us from common viral illnesses."
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A sleep routine is just one of the behaviors that is part of sleep hygiene, a buffet of efforts needed to sleep well that include eating healthy meals at regular times and not drinking too much coffee, said Dr. Meir Kryger, a professor of pulmonary medicine and a clinical professor of nursing at Yale School of Medicine in Connecticut.
"All of these things are really interconnected in terms of their function. All of them are connected to the body clock," Kryger said. "The body is like an orchestra where there's an orchestra leader that's sort of the main timer, but everybody else is playing it together and they're optimizing what they are doing."
Once you've developed your sleep routine, here are 10 benefits you could gain from the regimen.
1. Helps your body heal and repair itself
Our nightly shut-eye is our bodies' time for healing and repairing itself from performing its taxing daily functions.
"Imagine you're a car or something that's running for 16 hours during the day," Kryger said. "You're going to have to do stuff to get back to normal. You just can't keep on running."
During sleep is when we produce most of our growth hormone that ultimately results in bone growth. Our tissues rest, relaxing our muscles and reducing inflammation. And each cell and organ have their own clock that "plays a really important role in maximizing or optimizing how our body works," Kryger added.
2. Lowers risk for disease
Sleep on its own is a protective factor against disease.
When people get too much or too little sleep, "there appears to be an increased risk of deaths ... and other diseases raising their ugly heads," Kryger said, such as heart problems and diabetes. The healing period during sleep also factors in, as it allows cells that would cause disease to repair themselves.
3. Improves cognitive function
"As you sleep, memories are reactivated, connections between brain cells are strengthened, and information is transferred from short- to long-term," said a National Sleep Foundation article on the subject. "Without enough quality sleep, we become forgetful."
4. Reduces stress
5. Helps maintain a healthy weight
Getting your beauty sleep can help you to maintain a healthy weight or increase your chances of losing excess fat.
Two hormones control our urge to eat: leptin and ghrelin. Leptin tells us that we're full, while ghrelin communicates hunger.
When we don't sleep enough, both hormones veer in the wrong direction, Kryger said — ghrelin spikes while leptin declines, resulting in an increase in hunger and the potential to overeat and gain weight.
Sleep helps our bodies to maintain normal levels of the stress hormone cortisol as well, which determines how we hang on to excess fat.
6. Bolsters your immune system
Kryger has seen the immune systems of patients with sleep disorders fail to normally function. Sleep helps our bodies to produce and release cytokines, a type of protein that helps create an immune response by targeting infection and inflammation.
Additionally, "research done actually years ago showed that when people are sleep deprived, they do not have as vigorous a response to vaccination," Kryger added.
"As we're thinking about vaccination that's being developed" for Covid-19, that kind of research is going to be important.
7. May improve your social life
The emotional benefits of sleep can transfer over into your social life. "Just imagine you don't sleep enough and you're cranky," Kryger said. "Who's going to want to be around you? Another part of it is being cognitively sharp."
Adequate sleep can help you to be more confident, be more easygoing and support your efforts to do your part at home, he added.
8. Supports your mental health
Mental health disorders are often associated with substandard sleep and a sleep deficit can lead to depressive symptoms even if the person doesn't have the chronic disorder, Kryger said.
"Getting the right amount of sleep is really important in possibly preventing a mental illness or the appearance of a mental illness," he added. And in addition to the benefits for mood and stress regulation, sleeping enough "may make the treatment of the mental illnesses more efficacious if the person sleeps enough."
9. Reduces pain sensitivity
Extending participants' sleep time during the night or with midday naps, a 2019 study found, restored their pain sensitivity to normal levels in comparison to sleep-deprived individuals, who had a lower threshold for pain.
How this happens would have to be in the realm of perception, Kryger said, which ultimately traces back to the brain. "The brain is where sleep is," he explained.
10. Increases your likelihood for overall success
Since sleep can improve our health on all fronts, it consequently can help us be the best versions of ourselves. Healthy cognitive functioning, emotional regulation, coping and social life are all foundational to pursuing and achieving our goals and overall well-being.