Our humble hero: Sleep and its powerful health impact

Illustration of person waking up in bed
Alexander Hong/Senior Staff

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Sleep. Especially in college, we’re constantly reminded of how important a good night’s rest is. Be it before an exam, during a stressful week when anxieties are high or when you feel a cold coming on, you’re likely to hear the advice “get some good sleep.”

But, what is good sleep and how much does it really help? In the midst of a global health crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic, how much should we be thanking quality rest and sleep for keeping our immune systems and mental health strong?

In a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study on short sleep — described as sleep that lasts less than seven hours in a 24-hour period — it was shown that short-sleeper adults were more likely to be obese, physically inactive, current smokers and excessive drinkers. Sleep also has a complex relationship with the onset and management of many chronic disorders, including diabetes, cardiovascular disease and depression.

Beyond our physical health, sleep is also known for its influence on mental health, and is therefore a common focus in research. The Golden Bear Sleep and Mood Research Clinic — a part of UC Berkeley’s psychology department — describes itself as a treatment development team looking to cultivate better solutions for psychiatric and psychological health conditions.

Niki Gumport, a graduate student at the clinic and a fifth year doctoral student in clinical psychology at UC Berkeley, graduated from Stanford University with a degree in psychology.

“I am interested in taking causes that cut across multiple mental health problems (e.g., sleep) and developing interventions to address them, and then getting these interventions out to the public,” Gumport said in an email.

“I am interested in taking causes that cut across multiple mental health problems (e.g., sleep) and developing interventions to address them, and then getting these interventions out to the public,” — Niki Gumport

Her work looks at transdiagnostic mechanisms. These are factors that appear across a number of conditions and that act as either risks for disorders or factors that maintain disorders.

Sleep is a great example of a transdiagnostic factor in many mental health conditions. Depression, bipolar disorders, anxiety disorders and ADHD are all examples of conditions that come with a significant presence of insomnia.

“My research can contribute to implementing cost-effective interventions into routine care settings where most people get mental health care services,” Gumport explained in an email.

Humans are the only species to voluntarily put off sleeping — which makes the issue of health concerns related to sleep deprivation a social issue as well as a scientific one. Gumport doesn’t consider herself a “sleep researcher” so much as someone interested in treatment research. 

With a focus on implementation science — the study of how to efficiently promote the uptake and usage of science research into routine healthcare settings — Gumport’s research also aims to have an impact on environments where treatment is offered.

“Sleep deprivation can predict and maintain mental health problems. For example, short sleep duration predicts a manic episode and sleep deprivation can exacerbate and maintain a cycle of anxiety,” Gumport explained in an email. “Sleep is an interdisciplinary field that cuts across neuroscience, biology, psychology and public health researchers.”

Gumport enjoys her work not just because of the collaborative and supportive environment the clinic and the psychology department provide, but also because her research allows her to ask questions that are important across many disciplines and contribute to society’s overall well-being.

While getting a generous amount of sleep won’t necessarily protect you from getting sick, not getting enough rest can weaken your immune system and make you more susceptible to illness.

“Sleep deprivation can impair our immune systems. For example, short sleep duration is associated with a lower antibody response to the hepatitis B vaccine and the flu vaccine — meaning that these can be less effective if someone gets them when they are sleep-deprived. Sleep deprivation is also associated with an increased likelihood of catching the common cold,” Gumport wrote.

Knowledge is power, but what can we do when we can’t get enough sleep?

Knowledge is power, but what can we do when we can’t get enough sleep? It can be stressful to lay in bed unable to sleep when you know the effects it can have on your overall health.

The CDC recommends starting a sleep diary, where you record information about your sleep habits, such as when you fall asleep, when you wake up, when you exercise, when you consume caffeine and when you take naps. This can help you notice important patterns and can be a good resource when discussing your sleep habits with a physician.

Exercising regularly can be a wonderful way to help you fall asleep at night, but be careful not to exercise too close to bedtime as you can end up even more wakeful. Strength training, yoga and aerobic exercises such as running or cycling are all great workout options to help you achieve better quality sleep.

Napping can also be an effective tool for supplementing your sleep schedule during particularly busy or stressful times. Taking a short nap for less than 30 minutes — once in the morning and once in the evening — can support your immune system if you’ve had a sleepless week. It’s important, however, to not let napping interfere with your ability to fall asleep again in the evening, so it’s recommended to only nap when you need the extra boost.

Sleep can play a key role in how equipped our bodies are to handle anything from stress to the common cold, and sleep deprivation can give illness — both mental and physical — an undeserved advantage. Spending time to reflect on your sleep habits and the ways you can get at least seven hours a night can be a great start to giving your body the edge it needs. And while I may have finished writing this at three in the morning, I will be napping tomorrow.

Contact Megan Sousa at [email protected].