It’s far more than just being rested, and better able to tackle what life has to throw at us.
As little as one night of bad sleep can set us up for a bad day ahead. If our sleep is chronically disturbed due to stress, insomnia or a teething baby, our lives can be seriously affected.
A lack of sleep affects our physical, mental, reproductive and brain health. It also affects our ability to learn and progress at school and work, and our likelihood of becoming obese, being in an accident and developing life-changing diseases such as heart disease and certain cancers. 
For centuries, the reasons for sleep have eluded scientists. Whilst they understood why we do all the other things that make us human, such as eating, eliminating waste and reproducing, researchers are only just beginning to understand why we need to sleep.
Sleep scientist and neuroscientist, Matthew Walker has written a bestselling book on the topic, appropriately called Why We Sleep.
In it, he explains that sleep nourishes the brain, which in turn boosts our cognitive function – our ability to learn, make logical decisions, reason and memorise. Sleep also helps to regulate our appetite (who reaches for sugary carbs when they haven’t had enough sleep?!), balance our emotional wellbeing and support the immune system.
Dreaming also has a purpose. Matthew explains that dreaming helps us deal with difficult memories. It also mixes what we’ve learned in the past with what we know now to help boost our creativity. Many of us have our best ideas and creative thoughts in our dreams, and now we know why!
If sleep could be bottled, it could be sold as a wonder drug. Matthew describes this in his book beautifully:
“Scientists have discovered a revolutionary new treatment that makes you live longer. It enhances your memory, makes you more attractive. It keeps you slim and lowers food cravings. It protects you from cancer and dementia. It wards off colds and flu. It lowers your risk of heart attacks and stroke, not to mention diabetes. You’ll even feel happier, less depressed, and less anxious.”
Probably something we’d all sign up for.
Are you a Morning Lark, or a Night Owl?
If you’re more alert and productive in the morning, and struggle to stay awake past 9pm, then you’re a morning lark. If you’re just coming alive in the evening after struggling all day, and don’t go to sleep until gone midnight, you’re a night owl.
The reason for these different so-called ‘chronotypes’ is our internal body clock system. This is known as our ‘circadian rhythm’.
Unfortunately for night owls, we live in a world more suited to the circadian rhythms of morning larks, and our natural body clocks cannot be changed.
Matthew says that those who regularly have less than seven hours sleep, particularly night owls, are more at risk of “depression, anxiety, diabetes, certain cancers, heart attacks and strokes”.
Getting Enough Sleep
Thankfully, there are things we can do to get more sleep. The NHS recommends the following :
- Have a set sleeping pattern by going to bed and waking at the same time each day to help programme your body clock.
- Have a warm, not hot, bath before bed to relax you.
- Write down anything playing on your mind, or your to-do list, in the evening, so that you can clear your mind before sleep, knowing that you have an actionable plan for the morning.
- Avoid caffeine after lunch time, and don’t eat a heavy meal just before bedtime.
- Don’t perform rigorous exercise in the hour before bed, try some gentle yoga stretches instead.
- Make sure your bedroom is set up for good sleep. This includes having heavy curtains that block out light, not having the heating up too high and making it free from clutter.
- Use good quality ear plugs if your bedroom is noisy.
- Avoid using phones and laptops before going to bed as the blue light the screens tricks the eyes into thinking it’s daytime.
- Try listening to relaxing music or reading before you turn out the light.