Why sleep is the linchpin of good health

Many people who take exceptionally good care of their physical, nutritional, and emotional health treat sleep like some separate, transactional commodity, like a tank of gas. An extra coffee will get you through the day, and you can always catch up on sleep over the weekend, right?

Unfortunately, no. For people who strive to be healthy, sleep either optimizes your self-care regimen, or it creates a vicious cycle that undermines your progress.

Lutz Graumann, a member of Baze’s scientific advisory board, teaches that “rest and recovery are the holy grail of high-performance.” Why is that? Is our sleep more important than nutrition, exercise or stress-management? All of these health priorities are important and interdependent, but high-quality sleep is the linchpin.

Here’s why.

Consistent high-quality sleep lets your body take advantage of its built-in self-repair protocols. Conversely, inconsistent or poor-quality sleep activates your body’s self-defense mode and prevents self-repair.

Put simply, our sleep habits either activate a virtuous cycle for our health or they activate a vicious cycle. Unfortunately, there’s little middle-ground when it comes to high-quality sleep and rest.  Adults should aim for 7-8 hours of sleep each night with 6 hours as the bare minimum under exceptional circumstances.

Coffee cup on pastel background.

Good things happen when you sleep

Your body performs much of its repair and restore work in the two deeper stages of sleep. Among the most important processes activated in those stages are:

Hormone production

Much of the production of our sex hormones – estrogen for women, testosterone for men – happens primarily during deep sleep. The same goes for the production of growth hormones which generate the most results at the gym or in competitions. Aging decreases sex hormone production; meaning that a lack of consistent high-quality sleep just makes a bad situation worse.

Sleep also helps regulate insulin levels, boosting metabolism while supporting the production of the hormone leptin, which triggers the feeling of food satiety.1 If you’ve ever noticed it’s easier to make healthy food choices after you have had a good night’s sleep, that’s why.

Your liver’s daily detox work

Liver detoxification is another critical health function that takes place primarily in deep sleep. Your liver has to get rid of the toxic and pathogenic byproducts of normal metabolism, not to mention the toxins we ingest throughout the day – such as alcohol.

When we drink, we’re essentially introducing a poison into our body that our liver needs to clean out, but alcohol inhibits the deep sleep cycles that the liver needs to do that work. (See what Lutz has to say about alcohol’s impact on health in his recent post.)

Reducing inflammation

Much of the work that your body does to reduce inflammation, for example, from hard exercise or other external factors happens while you sleep. It’s important to distinguish between chronic inflammation (for example, due to a food allergy or a more acute health condition) and “normal” inflammation that you willingly induce on your system at the gym or the mountain trail. Good sleep will help to relieve “normal” inflammation, but you’ll likely need to make additional changes to address chronic inflammation.

But what happens when you don’t sleep?

Cortisol production

Poor quality sleep elevates your levels of the hormone cortisol.2 Cortisol, you probably know, is the stress hormone that our body activates to redirect its resources and systems to survival under stress. It’s one of the main hormones that our bodies evolved to tell us to run away from that sabre-toothed tiger so that we can live to pass on our genes. It’s also activated when we need to turn in another important report for a demanding boss or face another challenging argument with a friend or family member.

Clearly, cortisol threatens to activate a vicious cycle in which stress leads to poor sleep, leads to low energy and/or poor performance, which also can be great sources of stress. And so on. It’s critical for our health that we escape this trap and do what’s necessary to ensure consistent high-quality sleep.

Woman working on laptop in bed.

Cortisol production is a normal part of how our bodies adapt to different challenges both around us and inside us. But chronically-elevated cortisol levels mean that we’re always in fight or flight mode and not fully benefiting from our bodies’ built-in repair and restore capabilities (because cortisol is telling us not to direct adequate resources there).

Chronically-elevated cortisol hampers all of the repair and restore processes discussed above. It also impacts our digestive system’s ability to extract most nutritional benefit from healthy foods and supplements. Have you ever noticed that your bowel movements aren’t the same in long periods of high stress? That’s because cortisol has deprioritized your digestive activity to focus on sabre-toothed tigers or hating your job.

If rest and recovery are the Holy Grail of high-performance, then chronically-raised cortisol levels are its worst enemy.

Imbalance of metabolism and appetite

Insufficient sleep and raised cortisol levels trigger your body’s energy-hoarding instincts and processes. Poor quality sleep imbalances our blood sugar levels, causing energy spikes and crashes, which many people experience as junk food cravings. In addition, the hormone ghrelin, which activates hunger, is also activated by poor sleep. If one of your health goals is to lose weight or just get leaner, then surprisingly, one of the most important things that you may need to do is to sleep more to ensure that these hormones maintain optimal levels.

There are no hacks for good sleep

People often wonder which is most important–nutrition, exercise or sleep. And while all three are critical, high-quality sleep plays a unique role helping you get the most out of your nutrition and your exercise. 3 It’s time to make a decision to prioritize sleep in your life; there are no hacks to replace the health benefits of high-quality sleep.

White covers by the window.

Nutritional imbalance is the number one cause of health issues in the United States. Accurately check your nutrient levels with a Baze Starter Kit, which includes a painless blood test, a report on your current nutrient levels and a month of free personalized vitamins.

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC535701/ 
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9415946
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5449130/

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