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The importance of sleep

“Sleep used to be kind of ignored, like parking our car in a garage and picking it up in the morning,” says David Rapoport, MD, director of the NYU Sleep Disorders Program. But not anymore. Here are some health benefits researchers have discovered about a good night’s sleep.

1. Improve memory

Just because you’re sleeping doesn’t mean your brain is too. During sleep, you can strengthen memories or “practice” skills learned while you were awake (it’s a process called consolidation). “If you are trying to learn something, whether it’s physical or mental, you learn it to a certain point with practice,” says Dr. Rapoport, who is an associate professor at NYU Langone Medical Center. “But something happens while you sleep that makes you learn it better.”

In other words, if you’re trying to learn something new, you’ll perform better after catching a few Zzz’s.

2. Curb inflammation

Research indicates that people who get less than 6 hours of sleep a night have higher blood levels of inflammatory proteins (like the C-reactive protein associated with heart attack risk) than those who get more. Inflammation is linked to heart disease, stroke, diabetes, arthritis, and premature aging.

People who have sleep apnea or insomnia can have an improvement in blood pressure and inflammation with treatment of the sleep disorders, Dr. Rapoport says.

3. Spur creativity

In addition to consolidating memories (or making them stronger), your brain appears to reorganize and restructure them, which may result in more creativity as well. Indeed, researchers at Harvard University and Boston College found that people seem to strengthen the emotional components of a memory during sleep, which may help spur the creative process.

4. Be a winner

If you’re an athlete, there may be one simple way to improve your performance: sleep. A Stanford University study found that college football players who tried to sleep at least 10 hours a night for seven to eight weeks improved their average sprint time and had less daytime fatigue; not to mention more stamina.

Then again, no need to be an athlete to appreciate those benefits.

5. Have a healthy weight

If you are thinking about going on a diet, you might want to plan an earlier bedtime too. Researchers at the University of Chicago found that dieters who were well rested lost more fat – an astounding 56% of their weight loss – than those who were sleep deprived and lost more muscle mass. Dieters in the study also felt more hungry when they got less sleep.

“Sleep and metabolism are controlled by the same sectors of the brain,” Dr. Rapoport says. “When you are sleepy, certain hormones go up in your blood, and those same hormones drive appetite.”

6. Lower stress

When it comes to our health, stress and sleep are nearly one and the same – and both can affect cardiovascular health. “Sleep can definitely reduce levels of stress, and with that people can have better control of their blood pressure,” Dr. Jean says. “It’s also believed that sleep effects cholesterol levels, which plays a significant role in heart disease.”

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