woman wakes feeling rested

Sleep has become a precious commodity – we love it and need it, but rarely get enough of it. Busy schedules, kids, anxiety and technology can all get in the way of a good night sleep.

Getting enough sleep can play an important role in your weight, emotional wellbeing, blood pressure, diabetes, mental and physical performance, and more.

Remember that adults aren’t the only ones who need good sleep. It’s also critical that children get even more sleep than adults.

Why is sleep important for health?

The three pillars of health are nutrition, physical exercise, and sleep. All three of these are connected.

For example, if you don't sleep well, you may not eat well. People get food cravings when they haven’t slept well, and they often crave a food with lots of carbohydrates (carbs) like a cookie. And when you are tired, the last thing you want to do is go to the gym.

People who are fully functioning pay attention to all three. They must all be working together for better health.

Here are some other health benefits of sleep:

  • promotes growth
  • helps heart health
  • supports weight management
  • helps combat germs and keep your immune system strong
  • reduces risk of injury
  • increases attention span
  • boosts memory and learning

Read more: Understanding what happens when you sleep

How much sleep should adults get?

Studies show that adults should get seven to eight hours a night for good health. Some people insist that they can get away with four or five hours of sleep. While these so-called “short sleepers” do exist, they are a very small percentage of the population.

The rest of the self-identified “short sleepers” are mostly staying alert by drinking coffee or other caffeinated drinks. Not getting enough sleep can raise the risk of health consequences.

However, getting enough sleep isn’t just about the number of hours you’re asleep. It’s also about the quality of sleep and that you stay on a regular schedule so that you feel rested when you wake up.

Read more from UC Davis Health: Good sleep in an age of anxiety

How much sleep should children get?

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, these are the recommended number of hours of sleep based on a child’s age:

  • Newborns: 14-17 hours a day
  • Babies: 12-16 hours a day (including naps)
  • Toddlers: 11-14 hours a day (including naps)
  • Preschoolers: 10-13 hours a day (including naps)
  • School-aged children: 9-12 hours each night
  • Teenagers: 8-10 hours each night

What are some health risks of not getting enough sleep?

Not enough sleep or routinely getting broken sleep is linked with seven of the 15 leading causes of death in the U.S. These include:

It’s not healthy to deprive yourself of sleep because sleep supports all aspects of normal brain and body function.

What are some tips for better sleep?

Here are some tips to help you get a better night sleep:

  • Avoid late-night snacking, sugar, caffeine, and alcohol.
  • Turn off electronics, TVs, and computers two hours before bed. The blue light from these devices causes your brain to stay active. Turning them off a couple hours before bed gives your brain a chance to unwind and get ready for sleep.
  • Store all digital devices (e.g., smartphone, tablet, laptop, etc.) in an area of the house other than the bedrooms.
  • Sleep in a dark room because light stimulates our brains.
  • Use an alarm clock rather than your smartphone or tablet as a wakeup device.
  • Keep room temperatures on the cooler side – ideally low to mid-60s.
  • Aim for a consistent bedtime routine and sleep schedule to help your body stay on a regular track. Find a good time for you to go to sleep every night and wake up at the same time every morning. It’s also important to keep that same schedule even on the weekends.

Read more: Brain basics and tips for getting a good night’s sleep

What happens to your brain when you don’t get enough sleep?

Sleep deprivation affects your ability to remember, concentrate, and make good decisions. Your reaction time is also reduced. A sleep-deprived driver has the same poor response time as someone who is legally drunk.

Not getting enough sleep makes us more emotionally unstable. Lack of sleep can cause you to have very strong emotions, such as extreme sadness or anger.

Does sleep play a role in Alzheimer’s disease?

One thing that connects almost all mental and nervous system disorders is some level of wake and sleep disruption. Health experts know that treating sleep disruptions can help stabilize neurologic disorders. But left untreated, sleep disruption may contribute to the progression of disease.

One example is Alzheimer's disease. We know that sleep is disrupted in the early stages of the disease. If we could address that early on, perhaps the progression of the disease could be delayed.

Patrick M. Fuller, a neuroscientist who studies how the brain regulates sleeping and waking, contributed and reviewed this article. Fuller is a professor in UC Davis Health's Department of Neurological Surgery and vice chair for research.