What really happens to your body when you get 8 hours of sleep

Who has time for eight hours of sleep? As a mom to young kids, and busy entrepreneur, sleep often takes a back seat to bedtime stories and client phone calls. I used to pride myself on functioning on six hours of sleep, but no more. We've all heard the old adage you can sleep when you're dead. While that may be true, death may actually come quicker if you don't start prioritizing sleep right now. Real talk.

It turns out that sleep is absolutely essential for just about every area of our lives, and it's time to start paying attention. "Sleep used to be kind of ignored, like parking our car in a garage and picking it up in the morning," director of the NYU Sleep Disorders Program, David Rapoport, MD, told Health. However, we can no longer ignore it or feel proud of ourselves for getting by on just a few hours.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have actually called sleep deprivation a "public health epidemic," and it's estimated that about 40 percent of Americans don't get enough sleep. Most healthy adults need seven to eight hours of sleep per night. Adequate sleep literally benefits us in all areas of our lives — from illness prevention to happiness — so let's clock those zzz's!

You'll learn more

Sleeping eight hours is absolutely vital to learning any new skill. Sleep deprivation causes exhaustion during the day, which makes it harder to concentrate on a new skill — but it's more than that. Scientists are just beginning to uncover new research that reveals our brains process new information when we sleep. This means that when you wake up in the morning, you now have a better grasp on your new skill than you did when your head hit the pillow.

"If you are trying to learn something, whether it's physical or mental, you learn it to a certain point with practice," Dr. Rapoport told Health. "But something happens while you sleep that makes you learn it better." No matter what you're trying to learn, anything from website design to a new sport, sleep will help you achieve your goals faster.

Oftentimes when we're in a learning environment, we don't have a lot of extra time. If you're planning to spend the weekend writing your dissertation for your PhD program, you're probably not planning on sleeping much. "If you're trying to meet a deadline, you're willing to sacrifice sleep," Dr. Rapoport says, "But it's severe and reoccurring sleep deprivation that clearly impairs learning."

You'll become a classic pianist

Okay, maybe you won't be invited to Carnegie Hall anytime soon, but getting a full eight hours of sleep is essential to remembering how to do something. Physical skills, such as riding a bike or playing the piano, require us to use our procedural memory. During sleep, our brain processes our procedural memories.

It's essential to get the recommended seven to eight hours of sleep if you want those physical tasks to imprint on your brain. It goes far beyond muscle memory — it's sleeping memory! This phenomenon explains how you can just hop on a bike during your spring break trip to Italy, even though you haven't ridden since elementary school.

You'll feel happier

We all feel crabby when we're tired. Small tasks just feel harder and it's easy to become quickly frustrated. We're less likely to be able to get a handle on our emotions, and this rollercoaster leaves us feeling drained and irritable.

"Many things that we take for granted are affected by sleep," Raymonde Jean, MD, director of sleep medicine and associate director of critical care at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital Center in New York City told Health. "If you sleep better, you can certainly live better. It's pretty clear."

You won't feel so hungry

It turns out that sleeping eight hours makes it a lot easier to regulate our appetites and weight. When we sleep, our bodies are able to produce the right amount of leptin, the hormone that lets our brains know we're full and it's time to stop eating. When we're not getting enough sleep, we have trouble regulating hormone levels, and that imbalance leads to food cravings.

"Sleep and metabolism are controlled by the same sectors of the brain," Dr. Rapoport told Health. "When you are sleepy, certain hormones go up in your blood, and those same hormones drive appetite."

You'll lose weight

Studies have shown that people who sleep less than six hours per night are much more likely to have a higher body mass index (BMI) than those who get the recommended eight hours. Physicians even consider a lack of sleep a serious risk factor for obesity.

Sleeping for eight hours is associated with regulating our metabolisms and appetites. When we don't sleep enough, our hormones are off balance, which can lead to poor decision-making and food cravings. It's a lot easier to turn that caramel brownie down when you're feeling energized and upbeat, than if you're just coming off an all-nighter.

Your heart will thank you

Getting eight hours of sleep is also important for heart health. Sleep deprivation puts us at higher risk for heart attacks, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. In fact, sleeping less than five hours per night puts you at a 45 percent increased risk for heart attacks. Yikes!

"Sleep can definitely reduce levels of stress, and with that, people can have better control of their blood pressure," Dr. Jean told Health. "It's also believed that sleep affects cholesterol levels, which plays a significant role in heart disease."

You'll avoid petty fights

If you were tossing and turning all night, it's understandable that you bit your husband's head off for forgetting to put away the laundry. We all feel a little out of sorts on no sleep, but it actually goes beyond simple grumpiness. When we don't get eight hours of sleep, we literally lose our ability to interpret events rationally or make sound decisions. Our behavior becomes a little erratic, because we're more likely to make snap judgments.

For example, when I misplace my wallet, I'll usually check my usual spots and take a moment to try to remember. But if I'm sleep-deprived, I'm more likely to assume that my daughter took it and become livid!

You'll be less likely to get diabetes

Diabetes has become an epidemic in our country, and it turns out sleep could play a big role. Sleep affects our ability to regulate our glucose levels or blood sugar.

In studies of healthy adults who went from eight hours of sleep per night to four, these individuals started processing glucose more slowly. If our blood sugar levels hang out too high, for too long, we're jumping on the chronic disease train to diabetes town.

You'll fight off infection better

Sick of catching colds? Start making sleep a priority. You know those mornings as a kid when you stayed home sick and your mom sent you off to bed instead of playing video games? She was right to maximize your sleep!

Studies have shown that there's a reason why we feel extra sleepy when we're sick. It's our body's way of getting better. The more sleep we get, the better able our immune systems are to fight infection.

You'll live longer

Yep, you probably knew this one was coming. If sleep makes your heart healthier and your brain happier, it's probably going to help you live longer.

A study published in Sleep reported that individuals who sleep less than six hours per night are 12 percent more likely to experience premature death! Interestingly, those who sleep too much, more than eight to ten hours per night, have a 30 percent increased risk of premature death! Looks like eight hours is the sweet spot.

You'll have better sex

If jazzing up your sex life was one of your new year's resolutions, start with getting enough shut eye. Not getting enough sleep lowers libido, so not only will you be exhausted, but you just plain won't feel like sex.

Not to mention that people who don't get eight hours of sleep are more likely to have sexual problems like erectile dysfunction. Focus on taking care of yourself and sleeping enough, and all the sex concerns will sort themselves out.

You'll be a safer driver

We've all driven when we were tired. It often feels like we don't have a choice. When I first graduated from college, I was working as a nurse on the night shift. There were many mornings when I fell into my car exhausted after a 12 hour shift — and suddenly I was home, with no recollection of how I got there.

In driving tests, sleep-deprived drivers perform more like alcohol-impaired drivers than their sober pals. In fact, according to the National Sleep Foundation, drowsy driving causes up to 100,000 crashes and 1,500 deaths each year.

You'll have flawless skin

If a healthier heart and lower risk of diabetes didn't get your attention, getting enough sleep makes you look younger. Sleep is the time when our bodies do their best repair work.

A report in Clinical and Experimental Dermatology found that study participants who got enough sleep recovered from being exposed to ultraviolet light better than their sleep-deprived friends. Their skin also healed from minor trauma more quickly.

You'll avoid migraines

If you've ever suffered from chronic headaches or migraines, you know how debilitating they can be. Many migraine sufferers find that sleeping can help relieve the migraine.

However, it turns out that sleep could actually prevent them as well. For reasons that are still unclear, doctors have come to the conclusion that sleep-deprived patients are more likely to suffer from migraines than fully-rested patients. Even if you don't experience full-on migraines, try increasing your sleep to help those annoying daily headaches.

How to prioritize shut eye

Sure, more sleep would be ahhhmazing, but who has the time? I know how hard it can be to find the time for more sleep, but it's clear that if you don't make time for sleep now, you'll be making time for illness and unhappiness later.

First, try sticking with a set sleep schedule, even on the weekends. This will allow your body to know when to wind down, helping you fall asleep faster. Next start cutting yourself off from caffeine and screen time before bed. We all know we're supposed to do this, but so many of us continue to drink our coffees all afternoon and lie in bed while scrolling through social media. Turn off the coffee pot at least four hours before bed and tuck away your phone and computer an hour before turning in.

Before you know it you'll be snoozing soundly. Your body and mind will thank you!