Sleep—How Important Is It?

Sleep is very important for optimal health because that's when the body recharges and revitalizes itself. And less sleep can actually make you sick.
Sleep—How Important Is It? - Articles


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"Sleep is as important as diet and exercise to optimal health,” states Dr. Nathaniel Watson, a professor of neurology at the University of Washington Medicine Sleep Center in Seattle, in a recent article for HealthDay News. Why is sleep on the same level of importance as diet and exercise? What has changed in the research?

In general, we know that when we sleep our body is recharging or revitalizing itself. But researchers from the University of Washington Medicine Sleep Center are the first to show suppressed immune gene expression in chronic sleep deprivation. By comparing adult identical twins, they found that the one who regularly slept less was sick the most. This supports earlier research showing that sleep-deprived subjects who were exposed to a rhinovirus were more likely to catch a cold.

Who is sleep deprived? According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 25 percent of American adults report insufficient sleep at least 15 days out of the month. The recommendation for adults is 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night; however, 30 percent of the working population gets fewer than 6 hours. Children require 9 to 11 hours of sleep per night.

Importance of Sleep

Adequate sleep is essential for:

  • Fighting off infection
  • Supporting the metabolism of blood sugar to prevent diabetes
  • Performing well in school
  • Behavioral self-regulation in preschool and school-aged children
  • Working effectively and safely

Sleep Disorders

Sleep disorders and chronic low sleep are associated with an increased risk of:

  • Heart disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Obesity (due to increased hunger hormone and excess carbohydrate intake)
  • Diabetes (from impaired glucose tolerance)
  • Death

Sleep-disordered breathing (SDB), which includes sleep apnea, is another serious threat to health. SDB is characterized by erratic airway obstruction or pauses in breathing. People with untreated SDB have two to four times the risk of heart attack and stroke. Obesity is a significant risk factor for SDB, and weight loss is recommended.

Improving Sleep and Sleep Quality

  • Limit caffeine and alcohol intake, and avoid caffeine after noon.
  • Avoid nicotine, another stimulant. Nicotine and alcohol affect sleep quality.
  • Avoid nighttime exercise within three hours of going to bed.
  • Avoid large meals within four hours of going to bed.
  • Check medications, especially pain relievers with caffeine, decongestants, steroids, and betablockers, for sleep side effects.
  • Stick to a sleep routine. Go to bed and rise at roughly the same times daily, including on weekends.
  • For children, routine is key—establish bath time, book reading, and bedtime for the same time each night.
  • Get 30 minutes of sun exposure, preferably with exercise, daily.
  • Exercise 30 to 60 minutes on most days.
  • Keep your bedroom dark, cool, and quiet.
  • Avoid watching TV or reading on a computer or tablet within one hour of going to bed.
  • Take naps if needed, but avoid doing so after 3:00 p.m.

The bottom line from the researchers at the University of Washington: “There is no substitute for sleep.”

Examine Your Choices

My scheduleWhat do I do nowWhat I would like to changeHow I plan to change
Lucky to get 6 hours of sleep per nightWatch TV until 11:00 each night; little exerciseSleep 8 hours each nightNo TV past 9:00; go to bed half-hour earlier; read/unwind until 10:00 p.m. is routine; walk outside 30 minutes daily

My goal: _____________________________________


Insomnia has many different causes, and it can become a chronic problem. If it persists for more than a month, be sure to get it diagnosed and treated.


Kondracki, Nancy L. “The Link Between Sleep and Weight Gain—Research Shows Poor Sleep Quality Raises Obesity and Chronic Disease Risk.” Today’s Dietitian 14, no 6 (2012): 48.

Mozes, Alan. “Skimp on Sleep and You Just May Wind Up Sick.” HealthDay News, Thursday, February 9, 2017.

Sleep Health.” Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.