A good night of sleep is the ultimate pampering for your skin, your hair, your nails. Great sleep is like getting the full works at the spa—a facial, a deep conditioning treatment, a mani-pedi.
Why? Sleep is prime time for the body to restore and repair itself at the cellular level. It’s during sleep that a fleet of hormones that support cellular health AND a youthful appearance go to work.
Poor sleep, on the other hand, accelerates biological aging and contributes to the signs of aging—wrinkles, dull skin, puffy, tired eyes, unhealthy hair—that drive people to sink lots of money and time into make-up and beauty routines.
I’m not telling you to toss your stash of creams and make up. But the truth is, sleep is the ultimate cosmetic medicine. By establishing a routine of sleeping well, you allow your body to perform its own, innate anti-aging work. The result is a healthier you, and a younger looking you, too.
I thought we’d have some fun today, and put my sleep advice head-to-head with the beauty industry tips for concealing and reversing the most common signs of aging that most of us want to address.
How sleep makes us look younger
Aside from the number of years we’ve clocked on the planet, how old—or young—we truly look and feel is the result of a host of interrelated factors, including:
- Lifestyle habits and routines
- Diet and exercise
As an essential and elemental lifestyle routine, sleep makes a major contribution to our individual biological aging process. There are several ways that a full, sound, high-quality night of rest delivers anti-aging benefits and leads directly to a more youthful, healthful appearance.
Cellular growth and repair. If you think for a moment of your body as a vehicle, then logging a great night of sleep is like shipping yourself off to the most highly rated and skilled repair and body shop. During the day, our brains are busily engaged with all the activity of waking life. At night, relieved of its duties to command and control active, wakeful functioning, the brain’s focus shifts its priorities, and at the top of the list is cell growth and repair.
During sleep, the body fixes damaged cells and launches the growth of new cells. As we sleep, we strengthen our biological defense mechanisms that fight back against damage from environmental sources such as UV rays and from radical cells, which contribute to aging and to disease. During sleep, the body increases production of proteins that fuel cell growth and repair—including collagen, the most plentiful protein in the human body, and one that is essential to healthy, youthful looking skin. Deep sleep in particular is critical for this cellular repair work. And to maximize your time in deep, slow-wave sleep, you need to get both a full night of sleep and have that night’s sleep be filled with high-quality rest.
Release of human growth hormone. I call HGH “nature’s Botox.” This hormone is a powerful rejuvenator of cells, tissues, and organ function throughout the body. It helps to regulate metabolism, supports strong immune functioning, and offers protection against age-related diseases such as heart disease and diabetes. All this rejuvenating power means the body’s nightly release of HGH contributes directly to a more youthful appearance of hair, skin and nails. HGH is an essential component of collagen production.
Most of the body’s HGH production takes place during sleep, in particular during stages of deep, slow-wave sleep. When sleep is restless and fragmented, or when we simply don’t get enough sleep to move through 4-5 full sleep cycles, each containing periods of slow-wave sleep, our bodies are shortchanged on HGH production. That makes us look and feel older, and accelerates underlying biological aging. GABA is one sleep-supporting supplement that also promotes the body’s natural HGH production.
Sleep also promotes:
Hydration, and the healthy distribution of fluid. Sleep helps keep the body hydrated, and helps avoid excess fluid retention. Dehydration and fluid retention are significant contributors to some of the most visible signs of fatigue and aging.
Healthy circulation, and slower arterial aging—that’s the age-related damage to the body’s heart and blood vessels. Sleeping well can lower blood pressure, relax blood vessels and improve blood flow, bringing nutrients—and a healthy color—to the skin. Sleep also slows the aging of the heart and blood vessels. Poor circulation and arterial aging are major contributors to the appearance of aging on the skin and hair.
Lower stress. Stress increases the production of cortisol, increases free radical cells, and weakens the body’s ability to repair itself, all of which contribute to the appearance of age. Sleep also helps keep inflammation in check, and can reduce the stress-related, age-accelerating cellular damage to skin and throughout the body.
How Does Sleep compare to Make-Up?
Let’s take a look at how sleep compares to makeup at counteracting some of the most common complaints about the appearance of aging.
What do most people use? Expensive serums and creams that claim to hydrate, build collagen, and eliminate fine lines.
What does sleep do? Our skin is a network of collagen and elastin fibers, and as collagen declines and elastin fibers become more stretched out, wrinkles and fine lines appear. In particular, arterial aging—the age-related damage and decline in functioning of the heart and blood vessels–accelerates the breakdown of elastin fibers. While lack of sleep speeds up arterial aging, plentiful rest slows it down, reducing the presence of wrinkles. The cellular repair that takes place most predominantly in deep sleep increases our cells’ ability to ward off the effects of sun damage and other environmental damage, which cause wrinkles. And HGH contributes to that cell renewal and new cell growth, increasing the rate of production of new skin cells and helping to replace lost elasticity in skin fibers. HGH also stimulates the production of collagen. I’ve written about a sleep-promoting supplement, glycine, which also aids in the production of collagen.
A 2014 study found that compared to people who slept 5 hours nightly, people who got 7-9 hours of sleep had skin that showed fewer signs of visible aging. The longer sleepers also had skin that was more naturally moisturized, and skin that was better able to protect itself at the cellular level against UV damage.
“The ability of skin to retain moisture, protect and heal all combat the signs of aging,” says Karin Olszewski, a nurse specializing in cosmetics at Oregon’s Samaritan Plastic, Reconstructive & Hand Surgery. “Your skin goes through much of its restoration while you sleep. If you cut back on sleep you are reducing the amount of time the skin has to repair, which can affect the way you look.”
Dry, dull, ashen skin
What do most people use? Exfoliators, moisturizers, make up foundation that promises to boost skin’s radiance and luminosity
What does sleep do? Dull, dry skin becomes more common with age. Deep sleep’s cellular repair and the sleep-related surge of HGH promote the body’s repair of damaged skin cells and the growth of new ones, creating more of the dewy, youthful look that everyone wants.
In addition to the accelerated aging that results from sleep deprivation, being shortchanged on sleep means you lose out on a nightly chance to rehydrate. Creams can help skin retain moisture. And of course, we all need to be drinking plenty of water throughout the day to stay hydrated! But no cream can replace the power of sleep to help keep the body hydrated from the inside out. During sleep, the body works to regulate temperature by sweating. Sweating brings moisture to the cells of the skin’s uppermost layers, filling them with water and leaving skin looking full and firm.
When we’re dehydrated, skin looks tired and dull. A lack of sleep can contribute to dehydration by interrupting the release of the hormone vasopressin, which plays a key role in keeping the body hydrated. Vasopressin is released most plentifully during the later cycles of your nightly sleep, so to keep your skin looking dewy and full, make sure you’re sleeping well right up to your morning wake time, and not shortchanging your rest by waking too early or sleeping restlessly in the second half of the night.
Stress wreaks havoc on the skin’s appearance too. The stress hormone cortisol can affect the circulation of blood to cells throughout the body, including to the skin. A routine of sleeping well helps keep stress under control—and you’ll see those stress-relieving benefits in the vitality and radiance of your skin.
Sleep deprivation itself also lowers circulation, which can make skin look pale, dull, and washed out. A healthy night’s sleep promotes healthy circulation, and more vibrant looking skin.
What do most people use? Undereye concealer, under eye creams and serums, cold compresses, cucumbers and tea bags on the eyes!
What does sleep do? None of us likes to see bags under our eyes when we look in the mirror. Puffy eyes result from a number of factors, including the loss of elasticity in the skin, fluid retention, and inflammation.
As I’ve described, plentiful, high-quality sleep helps the skin remain more elastic.
Sleep also helps avoid excess water retention, by regulating blood pressure. Elevated blood pressure causes edema, aka excess fluid, by restricting blood vessels. High blood pressure is closely linked to sleep deprivation. By sleeping more and lowering blood pressure, it’s possible to reduce under-eye puffiness AND significantly improve your cardiovascular health at the same time.
Lack of sleep also increases inflammation throughout the body. I’ve written before about the relationship between sleep and inflammation. Swelling and puffiness around the eyelids can be a sign of inflammation. Puffy, swollen eyelids can signal a medical condition, including allergies and thyroid disease; it’s a good plan to check in with your doctor if you observe this type of swelling around your eye.
Dark under eye circles
What do most people use? Under-eye concealer
What does sleep do? Dark circles under the eyes often get blamed directly on sleep. Actually, your genes have a lot to do with whether you’re prone to these dark circles. But sleeping better may in fact help, particularly if you’re sleeping poorly or not sleeping enough (which is most people, especially these days). Poor sleep inhibits healthy circulation, and a darkening of the skin under the eye may be partially due to a pooling of blood under this very thin, almost transparent skin. If you’re genes predispose you to dark under eye circles, you can likely avoid making them worse by getting more plentiful and sound sleep.
“Lack of sleep can contribute to darker blood vessels as well as fluid buildup under the eyes resulting in a dark shadow,” Karly O’Keefe, an esthetician and owner of SkincraftLA, a facial treatment center in Los Angeles, recently told Insider.
What do most people use? Eye drops
What does sleep do? If you’ve got red eyes, it means you haven’t spent enough time with your eyes closed. I mean it! Our eyes grow dry and irritated after a long day of wakefulness. Sleep allows eye membranes to restore and repair themselves. Red eyes can be caused by allergies, and plentiful sleep protects eyes from allergens in the environment. Allergy sensitive sleepers should make sure bedding is clean and hypoallergenic, too. The remedy for red eyes is literally more shuteye.
Dull, unhealthy hair
What do most people use? Expensive shampoos and conditioners, hair-thickening and hair-growth treatments, dyes
What does sleep do? A lot about the appearance and thickness of hair comes down to individual genetics. But sleep is also really important for hair health. Blood circulates nutrients to hair follicles. When poor sleep compromises circulation, it deprives hair of the nutrients it needs and the result is slower-growing, weaker hair. Sleep promotes the growth of new cells that are involved in hair growth. “Sleep is important for protein synthesis of your hair, as well as proper release of growth hormone and other hormones, says dermatologist Dr. Francesca Fusco, to Teen Vogue.
Stress can cause hair loss, and poor quality, insufficient sleep is a major contributor to increased stress and makes managing stress more difficult.
All these benefits of sleep for a more youthful appearance can help you rely less on beauty and wellness products that are expensive and may deliver dubious results, or temporary ones at best. To slow the aging process at the cellular level, we must care for our bodies at a cellular level. That’s about eating well, staying hydrated, staying active—and maintaining a consistent routine of high-quality sleep.
Michael J. Breus, PhD, DABSM
The Sleep Doctor