Sleep: The Ultimate Recovery Tool

When it comes to wellness, sleep is a non-negotiable cornerstone: too little not only harms our immediate quality of life, but also contributes to longer-term disease risk, weakened immunity, and even earlier mortality.[1]

Despite its importance, sleep tends to be viewed more as a luxury than a necessity. It’s often the first thing we sacrifice in order to meet the demands of a busy day, and sleep quality is rarely given as much attention as other major lifestyle components like diet and exercise.

Sleep can feel like a passive health tool compared to the seemingly more “active” behaviors of eating or physically moving. But the truth is, just like the adage “you can't out-exercise a bad diet,” you also can't out-eat or out-exercise poor sleep.

Putting effort into optimizing our sleep routine can have a profound effect on our health. In fact, getting high-quality sleep—and enough of it nightly—brings wide-ranging benefits for mental function, physical performance, injury recovery, body composition, hormonal health, and more!

woman sleeping in bed hugging soft white pillow

What happens when we sleep?

While it might seem like most of our bodies’ systems shut down during sleep, sleep is far from a passive activity: it’s actually a critical time for repair and rebuilding.

Every night, we cycle repeatedly through 4 different stages of sleep, all of which serve specific functions in helping us wake up feeling refreshed and restored. Those sleep stages are:

Deep sleep and REM are the most critical times for repair work. Specifically, during these stages, the body (especially the brain) carries out important functions such as:

In other words, sleep is a surprisingly action-packed time, as far as our bodies are concerned!

The consequences of poor sleep

We all know that feeling of waking up groggy, wishing we could hit the “snooze” button a few more times before dragging ourselves out of bed.

But the effects of inadequate or poor-quality sleep go much further than a rough morning and tired day. Lack of sleep results in a slew of hormonal, metabolic, and immune changes that negatively impact many areas of our lives.

Scientists are still studying all the ways that poor sleep affects human health, but so far, we know that even short-term sleep deprivation can cause the following problems:

Meanwhile, chronic sleep deprivation (less than 5 hours per night) brings additional damage over time, including an increased risk of many health conditions:

Unmanaged sleep disturbances, such as sleep apnea, can also contribute to these health risks by interrupting our sleep cycles and reducing the amount of time we spend in deep sleep.[32] So, even if we’re physically in bed for a reasonable amount of time, the quality of the sleep we’re getting matters too!

How much sleep do we need?

The optimal amount of sleep varies from person to person, influenced by factors like age, health status, genetics, and more. However, the current consensus is that most adults require about 7 to 8 hours of sleep per night to function their best.[33] Regularly sleeping less than 7 hours per night begins increasing the risk of adverse health outcomes, accidents, and performance impairment.[33]

Some circumstances can temporarily increase our sleep needs—such as being sick, recovering from sleep debt, or performing strenuous activity during the day.[33] In these situations, it’s normal to need more than 8 hours of sleep in order to feel fully rejuvenated.

As a general rule, if you wake up feeling well-rested and stay alert throughout the day, you’re probably getting the right amount of sleep.[34]

How do we improve our sleep?

Taking measures to improve the quality and quantity of our sleep is one of the most valuable things we can do for our health. But how do we go about doing so?

woman wearing a sleeping mask while lying on her bed

The answer lies in optimizing our sleep hygiene—a term referring to the behaviors and environment we create to support optimal sleep.

Good sleep hygiene means making choices that support our circadian rhythms (the body’s daily sleep-wake cycles) and our sleep drive (a biological urge similar to hunger, where the desire for sleep builds throughout the day).

During the daytime, there are a number of things we can do to improve our sleep hygiene. These include:

Meanwhile, our nighttime habits and environment also have a huge influence on our sleep. Consider trying these tips:

Rather than looking at this like yet another task to add to your endless to-do list, we can think about our sleep routine as a treat—a self-care practice that we get to create and enjoy every night.

Depending on our work schedules, childcare, or other responsibilities, we may have more or less time and control over our sleep hygiene. But there are always choices we can make that can either contribute to, or take away from, a good night's sleep.

Can you get too much sleep?

While insufficient sleep is regularly linked to a higher risk of chronic disease and mortality, excessive sleep (more than 8 or 9 hours per night) also shows some associations with health risks in observational studies.[42]

However, this doesn’t mean that allowing your body the rest it craves is a problem! Rather, so-called excessive sleep seems to be a marker for other existing health issues, including depression, undiagnosed sleep disturbances (like sleep apnea), immune problems, and illnesses that increase the body’s sleep needs.[43]

If you find yourself sleeping for unusually long periods each night, consult your physician to rule out any underlying health conditions.

The bottom line

In our modern culture that prizes working more and resting less, it can be hard to prioritize sleep over things like exercise.

But if you’re getting up early (against your body's natural inclination) or staying up late (while feeling “wired but tired”), you may be inadvertently sabotaging your health, as a lack of sleep can hinder the very things you're looking to improve through other health-promoting activities.

So, the verdict is in: prioritizing sleep can dramatically improve your health and life, especially when combined with other foundational health practices like eating a nutrient-dense diet and strength training. Are there any sleep hygiene tips we missed? Let us know!


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