Sleep is one of biology's most efficient multi-taskers.
It's when our bodies repair damage, renew cells, balance hormones, clean out waste products and so much more. Beyond that, sleep also helps support several aspects of mental health, brain function, and long-term wellness.
You've likely heard some of these core benefits before, but more recent studies have further explored the value of rest, providing some interesting insights.
Science is advancing all of the time, and the study of sleep is proving a hot subject in recent years. If you are looking for fresh motivation to start sleeping better, here are eight interesting ways sleep benefits your life, newly discovered by researchers.
1. Sleep Helps You Form Memories
One study of mice conducted by New York University researchers found interesting insights into how the brain might consolidate learning into memory.
In their study of mice, the same areas activated while learning activities were reactivated during rest, and new activity on dendritic branches (related to learning) was observable. However, in mice that were prevented from achieving non-REM sleep, the dendritic activity associated with learning was not observed.
This discovery will prove very interesting for future research, as the mechanisms behind the precise memory-sleep connection were previously unknown.
2. Sleep Helps Solidify Learning
Another interesting discovery regarding sleep's brain benefits involves learning while you snooze. Or, more precisely, solidifying knowledge of previously-learned information while at rest.
In a Swiss university study, researchers introduced two groups of participants to words of a new language. Half were kept awake learning, half went to sleep while listening to recordings of words.
After a few hours, those who slept performed better on the tests than those who stayed awake. But, this effect only extended to words the sleepers had learned while awake, not previously unknown words.
3. Sleep Helps Clean Up Your Brain
While you sleep, your brain is busy clearing out the gunk of the day. What gunk, you ask? Well, as you think and your brain works during the day, the chemical reactions created leave behind various byproducts.
During sleep, brain cells contract allowing these byproducts to be washed out so you can start fresh the next day. Researchers believe this process may provide some insight as to why poor sleep increases risks of Alzheimer disease.
4. Sleep Helps Reduce Risk of Depression
Researchers have known for awhile that mental health and sleep quality share connections. Two more recent studies published in the SLEEP journal looked at both adolescents and adult twins to learn more about the connections between sleep and depression, in particular.
The twin study found that short sleep duration and long sleep duration significantly increased genetic risk for symptoms of depression. The teen study found that sleep duration of less than six hours per night also increased risk of major depression.
What the studies can't say for certain, and what future research will be looking at, is whether or not getting less sleep itself brings on depressive symptoms, or if other factors contribute to less sleep. For example, another recent study highlights how negative rumination can delay sleep, a trait that is associated with an increased risk of depression.
5. Sleep Can Aid Test Performance
For students, getting sufficient rest proves important for tests and exams. One larger survey from Belgium showed that university students who got at least seven hours of sleep achieved grades 10 percent higher than those with fewer hours of rest.
Studies like these have also began paving the way for schools to move toward later start times, a growing trend in the end of 2014.
Even for those of us past test-taking years, studies like these highlight how important rest can be for information recall and attention at work.
6. Sleep May Boost Athletic Performance
If you feel tired, it's easy to see how that could hold you back at the gym. One recent Stanford study put this idea to practice on their own Cardinal basketball team.
Researchers monitored the players' performance for two weeks as they slept their normal schedules (averaging 6.5 hours of rest per night). Then, they were told to sleep as much as possible, during which they averaged 8.5 hours of sleep nightly.
During the longer sleep period of the study, players increased both free throw and three-point shooting accuracy, and every player showed improvements on their sprint drill times.
7. Well-Rested People Take Fewer Sick Days
Recent research has found links between sleep and immunity against illnesses like colds and flus, suggesting rest plays a role via reducing inflammation and other factors.
One study of Finnish workers published in the journal SLEEP actually found that indeed, well-rested people are less likely to miss work compared to their more sleepy counterparts.
Their research showed that both people sleeping under six hours and over nine hours were more likely to miss work, while people who slept between seven and eight hours had the fewest sickness-related absences.
8. Sleeping Well Helps Avoid Weight Gain
Several recent studies have aimed to uncover links between sleep and weight. The majority have found links between weight gain and reduced or irregular sleep patterns, suggesting that rest plays a role in metabolism and related hormones.
One recent study conducted by University of Pennsylvania researchers, touted as the largest and most-controlled to date, found similar results. In this study, 225 people were subjected to sleep deprivation and their weight and caloric intake was monitored over several days.
In the study, participants in the sleep restriction condition gained more weight. One interesting finding was that sleep deprivation led to more weight gain for African Americans compared to caucasians, and for men compared to women.
Similar to other past studies, the sleep deprived people also consumed more calories and chose higher-fat foods on delayed sleep nights, which researchers point to as the likely cause for weight gain. Essentially, more hours awake means more time to eat, equaling more calories and more pounds.
From weight to immunity to brain power, the science of slumber continues revealing just how important and beneficial sleep is to our overall well-being. And with 2015 just beginning, it will definitely be interesting to see what advances the next year sleep research brings, and what else we learn.
Which discovery did you find most fascinating, or what is one thing you hope researchers uncover about sleep this year? Share your thoughts below!
Firas Kittaneh is the CEO of Amerisleep, an eco-friendly luxury mattress company. Firas writes more posts on the Amerisleep blog about getting better sleep, healthy living and being eco-friendly. Follow him on Twitter.