SCIENCE

7 Big Things We Learned About Sleep In The Past Decade

05/25/2015 08:28 am ET | Updated May 25, 2015
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It's no secret that here at The Huffington Post, we love sleep -- and for good reason.

Sleep has been called the "third pillar" of health, along with nutrition and exercise. Getting the quality sleep that you need has the power to protect your physical and mental health, while skipping out on sleep can seriously hurt your health, cognition and well-being over time.

Over the past 10 years, sleep has finally become widely recognized as a critical aspect of good health, and new research has shed more light on its importance in our lives. Here's what we've learned.

1. A sleeping brain is an active brain.
While you're resting, your brain is actually in a highly active state. It processes complex information and even prepares for future actions when you're unconscious, according to a study published last year in the journal Current Biology. It also creates new memories and consolidates older memories for easier retrieval.

A series of studies conducted by researchers from the University of Rochester also found recently that the brain is busy doing some house-cleaning while we're asleep, clearing out damaging toxins that can contribute to neurodegeneration.

The brain engages in a little house-cleaning while we're asleep, clearing out damaging toxins that can contribute to neurodegeneration.

2. Sleep is an important key to health.
Want to stay healthy? Then prioritizing sleep is a must.

Chronic sleep loss can add up to some pretty scary negative health impacts, including heart disease, heart attack, high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, stroke, mortality, depression and anxiety. Sleep loss has even been linked to an increased risk for colorectal and breast cancer.

3. There are perks to being an early bird.
You know the expression "Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise"? It's not so far from the truth -- there's plenty of science suggesting that being a morning person carries a number of benefits for health and cognition.

Research conducted over the past decade has suggested that morning people have trimmer waistlines and motivated, "go-getter" personalities. It has also found that they're more likely to exercise than evening people.

One particular study, published in 2012 in the journal Emotion, even found that morning people experience more positive feelings and greater overall well-being than their night-owl counterparts.

4. Scientists have discovered how to "reset" the brain's biological clock.
There's a biological clock in your brain that controls your 24-hour rhythms of sleeping and waking, and neuroscientists at Vanderbilt University may have recently found a way to manipulate it.

By stimulating the tiny brain region that contains the brain's biological clock, the researchers were able to change mice's rhythms of sleep and activity so that they fell asleep during the time that they would usually be waking up, and vice versa. The discovery could pave the way for more effective treatments for seasonal affective disorder, jet lag and the negative health impacts of shift work.

5. Smartphones are hurting our sleep.
If you want good sleep, keep your devices out of the bedroom -- that's the conclusion of a wealth of new research on the effects of smartphones on stress levels and sleep quality. Roughly one-in-four 18- to 24-year-olds say that they don't sleep as well because of technology, according to a 2012 poll.

One-in-four 18- to 24-year-olds say that they don't sleep as well because of technology.

A 2013 Mayo Clinic study found that the bright light emitted by smartphones and tablets can disrupt sleep by interfering with the production of melatonin, a hormone that plays an important role in sleep-wake cycles. And last year, research from Michigan State University found that people who regularly use their smartphones for work purposes after 9 p.m. are more tired and less engaged at work the next day.

"Smartphones are almost perfectly designed to disrupt sleep," Dr. Russell Johnson, a management professor at MSU and the author of the study, said in a statement.

6. Sleep loss can mess with your judgment.
Just like you shouldn't swim after eating, you shouldn't make big decisions after a sleepless night. A growing body of research has shown that sleep loss can affect cognition in a way that hinders our judgment and decision-making abilities.

A 2007 study found that sleep deprivation harms a person's decision-making by causing the person to increase an expectation of gains and underestimate possible losses. Eight years later, another study (published this week in the journal Sleep) found that sleep loss impairs important aspects of decision-making in "high-stakes, real-world situations."

Politicians and business leaders, are you listening?

7. Shift work can be detrimental to sleep.
Mounting research has revealed that working a job that disrupts your natural sleep patterns can pose a major risk to your well-being. Shift Work Sleep Disorder has been recognized as a medical condition that is common among the roughly 20 percent of the U.S. population engaged in shift work.

Even shift workers who do not suffer from full-fledged Shift Work Sleep Disorder may be at a higher risk for heart disease, diabetes, obesity and depression.

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