Unlike many untested dietery supplements that are marketed for improving your skin, memory, immune response, etc; there is a free aid that has actually be studied in the context of human health: Sleep!

According to the CDC more than 1 in 4 Americans report not getting enough sleep, and 1 in 10 Americans have chronic insomnia.

For many people, sleep is a luxury they cannot afford; maybe it’s the new baby in the house, maybe it’s the long work hours forcing, maybe they are procrastinators exploring new avenues to practice their craft. Regardless of the cause, the consequences of sleep deficiency can be severe. Think of missing sleep as getting a paper cut–it’s not a big deal once in a while, but when it’s routine, you are opening up yourself for illness, irritation, and accidents.

Although sleep has already been known to play an important role in synaptic plasticity in the developing brains of kittens and in imprinting (memory) of birds the cellular mechanism by which sleep strengthens learning had yet to be elucidated. Then, in last month’s issue of Science researchers discovered that sleep was important for the retention of dendritic spines that formed under the context of learning a new motor skill (at least in mice, anyway). If you are cramming all night for that final exam….you’re doing it wrong! Study well, but get plenty of sleep if you hope to retain anything by test time. Given the importance of sleep on memory, is it any wonder why many FDA-approved anti-dementia drugs also affect the quality of sleep? In a recent article, researchers examined the potential role of sleep as a mediating factor affecting the observed association between post-traumatic stress disorder and hippocampal size differences.

Sleep deprivation has such a profound effect on the mind that researchers are considering its use as a model for psychosis!

In addition to memory, sleep plays an important role in immunity as well. In one small study (actually involving humans), sleep deprivation was associated with alterations in neutrophil populations–resulting in a low-grade pro-inflammatory state consisting of potentially immature neutrophils. This pro-inflammatory state that could exacerbate the symptoms of asthma and other hyper-allergic responses, but still fail to fight off infectious invaders due to the insufficient production of reactive oxygen species (ROS) by the immature neutrophils. Sleep deprivation has been associated with increased levels of cortisol (and other glucocorticoids), which can affect inflammation. Low levels of inflammation have been associated with depression, so it should be no surprise that sleep disturbances have been associated with mood disorders as well. Insufficient sleep has also been found to interact with the perception of stress and pain, which can affect the ability to sleep and result in the need to self-medicate using alcohol or other drugs.

Because of its effects on immunity, sleep may play an important role in regulating the gut microflora and affect gut and skin health. Sleep disturbances have been associated with inflammatory bowel disease and preliminary research on circadian rhythms in mice suggest that alterations in sleep patterns can affect the gut microflora. If sleep status can affect asthma, it is likely to have an effect on dermatitis and other hyper-allergic skin conditions. One review has even examined the potential relationship between sleep, inflammation, stress, and acne. Don’t want bags under those eyes? Don’t buy eye creams, get more sleep!

If you eat plenty of awesome veggies in order to feed your gut microbes, get plenty of sleep to keep that immune system working properly to maintain your microflora. If you have trouble sleeping, click here for some tips to help improve your sleep.

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