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6 Things Your Sleep Patterns Can Tell You About Your Health

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December 1, 2016

Your body—and especially your brain—need sleep. While you sleep, your stress system is turned down, your cortisol levels drop, your immune system gets stronger, your brain gets smarter and cleaner, and your body releases hormones like growth hormone and testosterone. Growth hormone is a protein hormone that has a major role in growth and in protein, fat and carbohydrate metabolism.

Have you ever met someone who thinks he or she functions just fine after 4 to 6 hours of shut-eye?

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What you do not realize is that the recommended amount of sleep that is best for you and your brain is a minimum of 8 hours and if you are not getting this much sleep, you are likely being kept alert and aroused by adrenalin, one of your stress hormones, rather than being awake because you are truly rested and energized.

These stress hormones alone can wreak havoc on your body (including your skin which ages faster), but even more so, the lack of sleep negatively affects your brain, which needs the fuel and extra time to be asleep for the cells, called neurons and glia, to fully regenerate, clean up house, and thrive.

During sleep your brain is processing complex information, creating and consolidating your memories, learning and remembering how to accomplish tasks, and perhaps more importantly, it is clearing out toxins, the very same toxins that are being shown to be implicated in such neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease1.

According to the 2013 International Bedroom Poll, half the population in the United States sleeps less than seven hours a night during the week, so chances are, you fall into the category of sleep deprivation, putting yourself at risk for health problems.

How do you know whether you are functioning from pure energy or the energy that comes from your stress hormones? Here's a little assessment to help you decode your body's signals, and whether it's asking for more sleep.

1. How quickly do I fall asleep when my head hits the pillow?

If it takes you less than five to fall asleep—your body is trying to tell you that you’re extremely sleep-deprived. If you fall asleep within 5-10 minutes, you’re body is telling you that you are experiencing moderate sleep deprivation, as it should take you between 10-20 minutes to drift off into your first stage of sleep.

What it means: Severe sleep deprivation doesn’t just present a danger to your health, but for others as well, as such sleep deprivation can lead to accidents, especially while driving.

2. Am I nodding off during the day or needing to nap?

This is literally a “no-brainer”: If you are tired during the day, so much so that you start nodding off, you are sleep deprived, and your brain is telling you it simply can’t function without more sleep. Though napping is a cultural norm in many countries, in areas of the world where this is not a norm, finding yourself falling asleep at the wheel, at work or any where else other than your bed is a sign of sleep deprivation that could be negatively affecting your health.

What it means: Indeed, taking a nap on occasion is a great way to catch up on sleep as the benefits of sleeping are cumulative, meaning you do not necessarily always need to get yourself all in one bout. Having said that, if you require a nap every day or needing to nap more than 30 minutes, you will want to address your sleep and even your health. A team at the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom found daily napping—of both less than and more than one hour—to be a warning sign of an underlying health risk, particularly respiratory problems2 and diabetes3.

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3. Do I snore loudly or stop breathing?

You may not know this, but your partner or roommate might tell you that you snore very loudly or that you occasionally stop breathing. This is often an indication of sleep apnea, a condition of interrupted breathing during sleep, often (but not always) associated with a collapse of the windpipe when the muscles relax during sleep or as a result of malfunction of the neurons (brain cells) that control breathing during sleep.

What it means: A stop or blockage of air flow is followed by a struggle to breathe and when the blood oxygen level falls, the brain stimulates a person to awaken enough to tighten up the muscles enough to get the windpipe back open. This is the point when a snort or gasp may be heard before snoring continues. This cycle may repeat a few times to over a hundred times over the night and needs to be diagnosed through a sleep study or polysomnography. Sleep apnea is widely under-diagnosed and I strongly suggest that if you snore loudly, are always sleepy, awaken with a headache or are obese, you get a sleep study.

4. Am I forgetful often?

As I mentioned, it is during sleep, especially deep sleep, that your brain consolidates memory via sharp wave ripples, which also transfer any learned information from the hippocampus in your brain, which is responsible for your visual-contextual and spatial memory, to the neocortex, where your long term memories are stored.

What it means: Lack of deep sleep therefore could be negatively affecting your ability to create and store long-term memory, but it may also affect your short-term memory as poor sleep can raise levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, which can have damaging affects on the hippocampus.

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5. Am I having a hard time losing weight?

According to a 2004 study, people who sleep less than six hours a day were almost 30 percent more likely to become obese than those who slept seven to nine hours.

What it means: There are many likely causes for this. One is that sleep loss often stimulates an increased appetite and cravings for foods high in fat and carbohydrates which is a result of decreased levels of leptin, the hormone that signals to the brain that you are satiated or full and suppresses appetite. It also increases ghrelin, the hormone that stimulates hunger. Less sleep is associated with lower levels of growth hormone (GH), which may translate into a slower metabolism.

6. How is my sex drive?

A study published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism found that close to 50 percent of men with sleep apnea also had low testosterone levels4.

What it means: With poor sleep, testosterone levels can drop, which can cause a drop in libido in both men and women. Of course, feeling sleepy, having low energy and being cranky add to the mix of low libido, but if you find this is an ongoing issue, you definitely want to improve your sleep hygiene, and if this doesn’t work, get yourself to your doctor and ask for a sleep study.

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6 simple actions to improve your sleep hygiene.

The good news is that improving your sleep is absolutely possible, which means you have the power to improve your health and the functioning of your brain and body. Aside from visiting with your healthcare provider, trying some simple sleep hygiene tips:

  • Keep your bedroom dark, quiet, at a cool temperature and use it only for sleep and sex.
  • Do not do work or keep electronics in your bedroom.
  • Avoid stimulants, especially in the evening (you want your last stimulant, like caffeine, to have been consumed at least 10 hours before sleep).
  • Avoid large meals at night.
  • Do some sort of relaxation prior to sleep and avoid working, being overly stimulated or actively working at least an hour before sleep.
  • Exercise regularly.
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