The Sleep-Health Connection

Do but consider what an excellent thing sleep is…that golden chain that ties health and our bodies together…
Thomas Dekker, ~1600 A.D.


I’ve written a lot on the importance of sleep and rest over the years so there’s no need to rehash old thoughts. I did want to throw out a new thought…

Holding It All Together

Sleep is important. We don’t really know why, what its purpose is or exactly how much we need but we do know it is a vital part of health and if we disconnect from good sleep and rest, health starts to deteriorate. Sometimes it happens quickly, other times it happens gradually without us really knowing it but the bottom line is sleep seems to be the stitching, screws, chains or glue that holds us together. Without it we, literally and figuratively, fall apart at the seams.

It’s a very tricky subject because sleep is so ambiguous, vague, mysterious, multifaceted and individualized. When you’re sleep deprived, your body starts to suffer, this much we know. We just don’t know exactly why or how this happens or why your slight sleep deprivation ravages you in a few nights but your spouse, friend or coworker seems to manage just fine on the same or worse sleep debt.

There is certainly very individualized sleep need, tolerance and resilience to sleep loss as well as very individualized quality of sleep, stress load and every other health factor that contributes to how any given person’s sleep equation plays out. We all try our best to figure this out and adjust our lives accordingly.

Here’s the logical question: If sleep is indeed that important and the thing that holds our body together, how do we know when those stitches or glue starts to lose their grip? And where in the body will it show?

As someone in the fitness industry, one of the most obvious areas of this playing out is in peoples’ body weight. I’ve long told clients that “you can’t out diet bad sleep” because I’ve seen how easily the body stores excess energy, particularly as fat, to recover from the stress of being underslept. Many a diet/fitness/health programs fail or struggle unnecessarily because sleep isn’t taken into account as the underlying foundation of the whole process. Sleep deprivation makes it very difficult for the body to let weight (aka energy) go, particularly if it sees that excess weight as necessary to survival or stress tolerance.

We also know how directly mental function is affected by sleep loss, particularly concentration, memory and patience. Immune function, recovery, repair and growth are also heavily impacted by lack of sleep. In fact, when you take a step back you see that everything in the body is negatively impacted by sleep disregulation.

This raises an interesting question:

Is just about everything a sleep disorder in disguise? Put another way: Are all our ails simply symptoms and/or manifestations of poor sleep?

In essence, since nearly everything in health can be traced back to sleep, is a problem there potentially ground zero for all these “health problems” we have? Are they all different points on the journey (and sometimes the end roads) of trying to navigate life while not sleeping enough?

Like I’ve always said, nothing in health is black and white or universal so I don’t believe everything is controlled by sleep because obviously well rested people get sick and tired people don’t always have health problems but there is some good rationale to consider this to be true as a general rule, most of the time, for most people.

Sleep, Our Dear Old Friend

I look at sleep as something elemental to health and proper function across all species over the history of the world. Humans have evolved with the sun and its rhythms guided sleep and rest patterns for our entire history until a little over a hundred years ago when we figured out how to extend the days as long as we want. For a long, long time people have known how important sleep is but that innate knowledge has been slowly displaced by technology and the partnered subconscious belief that we, as evolved creatures, can skirt Mother Nature if we are able to and so choose.

As a result now, instead of sleeping pretty consistently and as much possible or needed, we sleep inconsistently and as little as possible or needed. We find how little sleep we can get by on and work around it, for better or worse. Things go wrong with us here and there but very rarely do we think sleep has anything to do with it.

What if we start to think about sleep as that glue that holds our bodies together and has everything to do with our health problems, whether small or large?

Then the headache might be explainable. So might the annoying cold that, for one took hold and two won’t seem to go away. The reason why you can’t quite lose weight as easy as before might be more understandable. That stiffness in your back might also have an explanation, as would your lack of energy. Maybe, that latest visit to the doctor with high blood pressure, borderline high cholesterol and iffy blood sugar might not be so shocking.

If we look at the health problems we face, how many of them might end up being symptoms or adaptations for our body to resolve our sleep deficit? The longer this persists the deeper into adaptive (and often extreme) measures we shift. Eventually, the body’s original attempt to temporarily deal with sleep deprivation ends up becoming a chronic state. This is never a good thing. The body’s acute responses are designed for short term survival and are not geared toward the long term. I propose that many of the things we think are conditions, diseases or simple ails are in fact symptoms of the body trying to manage long term inadequate rest and recovery.

Ultimately, this is a double edged sword. Looking at health this way means bad health isn’t so intimating, it’s simply mostly a matter of resting more appropriately, resulting in allowing the body to recover, restore and return to baseline. However, unless we can and are willing to commit to sleeping more, this means it will be more challenging to fix our problems. If the cause of our vision/thyroid/weight/cancer/heart disease/migraines/etc. is inadequate sleep them the cure for them is sleep. Anything else, including medications, exercise, diet, social support, etc. may just be treating symptoms, slightly supporting our general health or simply not offending our health any further.

Regardless of how you view it, I think it helps all of us to consider sleep as the golden chain that ties health and the body together. Even if it’s not the only thing that underlies our health, it appears to be important enough, both currently and historically, to not be forgotten as a, and maybe the, crucial aspect to maintaining good health.

Thanks for reading, have a great day!



Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s