Both healthy habits are key—but one has the edge because it affects nearly every essential function of your body.

By Nancy Rones

Considering about a third of us fall short on shuteye, plenty of us view quality sleep as optional. Order a Venti the next morning and you’re golden, right? Not really. Over the last couple decades, growing research in the area of sleep medicine has revealed that a solid night’s sleep is necessary for overall health—extra shot or not. In fact, researchers at Harvard Medical School’s Division of Sleep Medicine refer to sleep as one of the three pillars of health, along with proper nutrition and exercise. While the how-tos and unquestionable big benefits of healthy eating (such as fighting disease and providing steady energy) have long been well-established, sleep is now gaining recognition as a critical component to good health. The National Institute of Health says quality sleep is as essential to survival as food and water and affects almost every system and tissue type of the body.  

“It’s really tough to prioritize sleep over healthy eating—or vice versa—since both are necessary and work in concert to promote general well-being,” says Natalie D. Dautovich, Ph.D., assistant professor in the psychology department of Virginia Commonwealth University and Environmental Scholar for the National Sleep Foundation. Though Dautovich isn’t choosing sides, it's possible sleep has the edge, as she points out that sufficient sleep enhances our ability to make healthy diet choices.

“The advances in sleep research have helped us better understand why we spend a third of our lives sleeping,” says Dautovich. More than just chasing daytime drowsiness, sleep handles an extensive list of important functions, including maintaining brain health, helping the body repair itself, stabilizing mood, and protecting against disease.

Just like improper nutrition can lead to dangerous consequences, the costs of sacrificing sleep are extremely high. “In the short-term, mental functioning is impaired, our mood is negatively impacted, and our body don’t recover from injury as well,” says Dautovich. “Over the long-term, poor sleep is associated with impaired brain health and a host of other medical conditions, including high blood pressure, heart disease, and obesity.” Here’s to eating well and catching your zzzs.

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