Beauty sleep: The science that proves it's real

Quality sleep could be the secret to retaining your looks, says Health and Wellbeing Physiologist Gavin Watt.

The desire to look good is a phenomenon that has spanned the ages and crosses cultural barriers. It’s in our nature to want to look our best, and more often than not, looking good means looking youthful. The term ‘I need to get my beauty sleep’ is bandied around like any old-wives tale, but there’s science that proves it’s much more than just that.

Deep sleep repairs cells

We tend to sleep in five-stage cycles, which last from 90 – 110 minutes and recur throughout the night. During stages 3 and 4, when you are in ‘deep sleep’, there is a surge in the secretion of growth hormone which assists with the repair and rebuilding of skin cells.

Cell production is also increased and cell protein breakdown decreased during this part of the sleep cycle. So reaching deep sleep is a vital process in repairing the damage caused throughout the day by factors such as stress and sun exposure.

Sleep combats the effects of stress

When we're stressed our bodies increase their production of adrenaline and cortisol, which creates inflammation, reduces the skin's firmness and causes an increased production of sebum. This is an oily substance which ensures our skin and hair is waterproof and not dry. In excess amounts, however, sebum can leave the skin oily and increase your risk of acne or other skin irritations.

Getting a good night’s sleep is important in reducing stress because when we are deprived of sleep, the amygdala, which labels information coming into the brain as threatening, becomes much more reactive, adding to stress. So sleep can help to reduce the body's stress response and avoid those negative beauty effects.

Lack of sleep damages collagen

Collagen has many roles in our bodies – it’s the main protein in our body’s connective tissues and bones, for example. But it also keeps our skin plump, our hair glossy and our nails strong.

Persistent stress throughout the day damages the molecular structure of collagen in our skin, but while you sleep, levels of certain stress-related hormones reduce, allowing more collagen to be produced. So the longer you are awake, the more damage is caused to the collagen, and the more you sleep, the more collagen is produced.

Sleep deprivation damages chromosomes too

Sleep deprivation can also have negative impacts on our ageing process at a genetic level. At the end of each DNA strand is a telomere, which acts as a cap to protect our chromosomes in a similar fashion to the plastic coating you find at the end of shoelaces. These caps play an integral role in protecting our DNA structure from any damage. Although these caps shorten as a natural process of ageing, this shortening can accelerate as a response to stress or inflammation, the effects of which reduce when sleep quality is good.

As a result, good sleep quality can help to decelerate the ageing process and help us to stay looking younger for longer.

If you struggle to get quality sleep, have a look at these practical tips for a good night’s sleep.

Last updated Wednesday 2 May 2018

First published on Monday 12 September 2016