Of all the habits research has shown to improve our overall health and well-being — lots of water, regular exercise, a diet chock full of vegetables and unprocessed foods — getting enough sleep has always been the one I’ve struggled with the most. Over the years, I’ve stayed up way too late for many reasons: a Netflix marathon, an Internet-search rabbit hole, mindlessly scrolling on social media, or staying out until last call in NYC, the city I’ve called home for nearly 14 years. This proclivity places me among the one in three American adults who, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, don’t get enough sleep. Though sleep is essential from birth, as we age, it becomes critical in helping us maintain cognitive function, maintaining stress, and regulating everything from our mood to our hormones.
“The recommended length of time we would like for people to get is seven to nine hours,” says Glenna Brewster, Ph.D., RN, assistant professor at the Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing at Emory University and a family nurse practitioner in the Integrated Memory Care Clinic. Though work, family obligations, and other factors make it challenging — or in certain cases, impossible — for some to dedicate seven-plus hours to sleep, even those who may have difficulty maximizing that time. Studies show that sleep efficacy decreases significantly with age in adulthood: Our ability to stay asleep for long stretches of time decreases; when we wake up in the middle of the night, it takes much longer for us to fall back asleep; and we’re more likely to take (or crave) a nap in the middle of the day. And because sleep helps us to cope with stress, maintain cognitive skills such as attention and memory, regulate our mood and physical wellness, and sustain our skin barrier, disruptions in that can present myriad challenges.
Among the most serious links between sleep and aging is the potential for poor sleep or a significant lack of it to lead to cognitive decline. “At night when we’re asleep, the brain is able to release a large amount of waste products that we accumulate during the day,” Brewster says, citing beta-amyloid and tau protein as two. “If you don’t sleep enough, you don’t give your brain the length of time it needs to cleanse. In the short term, you’ll wake up tired and fatigued and have slower reaction times. But over time, those proteins will build up and thus increase your risk of cognitive impairments such as dementia and Alzheimer’s.” While Brewster reaffirms that seven to nine hours of quality sleep is ideal, “we say anything less than five hours is what increases these risks,” she adds.
Good sleep, board-certified dermatologist Dr. Ingrid Roseborough says, is a significant contributing factor to skin health. “Every day, our skin withstands fluctuations in temperature, pH, UV radiation, and potential pathogens, and processes that occur during sleep help to maintain balance,” says Roseborough, a partner at Dermatology Center of the East Bay Inc. “During evening hours, epidermal skin cells exhibit peak growth and repair. Additionally, superficial cutaneous blood vessels dilate, delivering increased blood flow to the skin. This results in dermal heating and increased heat and moisture loss through the epidermis, a process known as transepidermal water loss (TEWL). When circadian rhythms are disrupted due to insomnia or sleep deprivation, researchers propose that normal skin barrier function is compromised. This means that skin is less able to control normal moisture loss.”
As we age, our production of collagen and elastin decreases, resulting in skin that is thinner, more susceptible to sagging, and less resilient to injury and stress. Sebum production decreases as well, which makes our skin drier, and we’re more likely to experience hyper- and hypo-pigmentation due to changes in pigment-containing cells called melanocytes. “Overall, we notice a loss of volume, formation of deep and fine lines, and slower wound healing,” Roseborough says. “Since sleep is an important time for cellular repair and growth, chronic sleep deprivation results in signs of premature aging.”
Roseborough adds that “almost all skin concerns can benefit from the cell repair and immune-boosting benefits of sleep, but inflammatory conditions such as acne, eczema, and psoriasis are particularly improved.” And, if you’re using products to address specific skin concerns or simply maintain your skin’s health, ample sleep will optimize their effectiveness. “Many dermatologic treatments take advantage of nocturnal skin changes to deliver important molecules through the skin barrier,” Roseborough says. “Retinoids, for example, are best applied at night to maximize collagen boosting potential and avoid the degradative and photosensitizing effects of solar radiation.”
If those seven to nine hours feel elusive, Brewster offers these tips: Try to wake up and go to bed at the same time every day, even on weekends and vacations; avoid caffeine late in the day and heavy meals within two hours of your bedtime; develop a nighttime routine, which can include meditation, reading, or another relaxing activity; put your phone and other devices down an hour before you plan to go to sleep; and stop. scrolling. on social media. “The only things you should really be doing in your bed,” she adds, “are sleeping, recovering from sickness, or having sex.” Watching TV, being on your phone, and even having conversations can disrupt your sleep. “All of this is based on the cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia framework. You want to help your body develop an association between bed and sleep, not between bed and scrolling TikTok.”
Like all the other responsibilities we juggle, rest should be a priority. “Sleep is a natural, regenerative, disease-fighting gift,” Roseborough says. “We can all benefit by taking a moment to focus on sleep and how it can help us lead a healthier life.”