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Why 'beauty sleep' is real, according to doctors

A new survey found that well-rested people report having a brighter complexion, clearer skin and fewer wrinkles.
Image: Woman with cucumber slices covering eyes
The cooling effect of chilled cucumbers will bring down the swelling of those under-eye bags.Jupiterimages / Getty Images

“Are you okay? You look tired.”

I can’t come close to counting how many times someone has said this to me, and no matter the empathetic tone in their voice, it’s never a compliment. Basically, they’re saying I look like crap — specifically my face. My eyes are puffy and red with dark half-moons below. My skin is blotchy and my coloring is wan.

On these occasions, you could say I didn’t get my “beauty sleep,” (a term that, according to, is defined as “sleep before midnight, assumed to be necessary for one's beauty” and “any extra sleep”); but actually what I probably didn’t get, was a good night’s sleep, period.

The act of sleep, doctors concur, plays a chief role in giving one a healthy appearance. This is a fact that many of us can vouch for even if we don’t know the science behind it. A new survey by Sealy in the UK found that well-rested people reported having brighter eyes (42 percent), a brighter complexion (21 percent), clearer skin (20 percent), fewer wrinkles (17 percent) and improved skin condition (11 percent).

What is it about sleep that makes our skin look better, and inversely, why does sleep deprivation take its toll not only on the way we feel, but the way we look, specifically our faces?

Sleep is a nightly dive into a ‘fountain of youth'

“Sleep is incredibly important for physical appearance,” Dr. Mikhail Varshavski, aka Dr. Mike (as well as “Instagram’s Hot Doctor”), an osteopathic doctor tells NBC News Better. “Sleep is a regenerative process where we heal and where our neurons build strong connections. It’s like a fountain of youth that we dive in to every night.”

This fountain of youth phenomenon cannot happen while awake, because, as Dr. Jeffrey Durmer, neurologist, systems neuroscientist, sleep medicine physician and chief medical officer of Fusion Health explains, it requires the highly active process of sleep.

“When you sleep, you’re going through choreographed cycles of REM and non-REM [states] that can’t happen when you’re awake — even if you’re lying down with your eyes closed,” Dr. Durmer says, adding that it’s largely during non-REM sleep (about four of eight hours of sleep, and usually experienced in the early onset of a deep sleep, he adds), that this skin-repairing process occurs.

Sleep is nature’s anti-inflammatory

Ever twist your ankle, ice it, then go to bed and find the next day the swelling has subsided? The ice may have helped, but the sleep was also crucial, because sleep reduces anti-inflammatory agents.

“You make anti-inflammatory cytokines while you sleep, which help heal and reduce the impact of damages done throughout the day,” says Durmer, citing sun exposure and pollution as typical daily skin damagers.

You make anti-inflammatory cytokines while you sleep, which help heal and reduce the impact of damages done throughout the day.

Our face takes the brunt of sleep deprivation because it’s so vascular

Sleep deprivation always seems to show up on our faces first and foremost. Why?

“The face is highly vascularized. Our lips are red because of blood itself, as is the blush in our cheeks,” Durmer notes. “When you become sleep deprived the nervous system starts to not regulate the blood vessels very well, [often resulting] in redness in the sclera itself and across the face and neck.”

Those dark circles under your eyes (more noticeable in fairer complexions) are a result of the inflammation and swelling. The tired pallor, also most evident in lighter skin, is owed to the disruption in blood flow distribution that occurs during sleep, Dr. Durmer adds.

Sleep is like ‘a facelift’ for your entire body

While we tend to see the evidence of poor sleep most profoundly in our faces, prolonged sleep-deprivation can affect our looks from head to toe.

“Poor sleep results in premature aging. This is because there are three key times that our body releases growth hormone,” says Dr. Jacob Teitelbaum, an internist specializing in chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia and pain management, and the author of “From Fatigued to Fantastic”.

Studies have shown that inadequate sleep results in an average 6 ½ pound weight gain and a 30 to 55 percent higher risk of obesity.

“Also known as the ‘Fountain of Youth’ hormone, optimizing growth hormone keeps us young. It keeps our muscles toned, and our skin at its full thickness. Think of it as a healthy facelift for your entire body, including face, breasts and abdominals. Sleep [also] plays a critical role in our production of two key hormones that regulate appetite and weight gain. These are leptin and ghrelin. Numerous studies have shown that inadequate sleep results in an average 6 ½ pound weight gain and a 30 to 55 percent higher risk of obesity.”

Hacks to perk up your skin after an all-nighter

In a perfect world, we’d all be getting our required hours of sleep every night, but such a world is not the one most of us live in. Sometimes we just don’t get those 6.5 to 9 hours adults need (we all fall along that spectrum). Long-term sleep deprivation can be serious (and can affect far more than just your looks), and if you’re concerned about this, definitely talk with a doctor or two. But for those fluke nights of bad sleep (or none at all), consider the following hacks for a beauty pick-me-up the following day.

  • Cold cucumbers (or ice pack) on the eyes. I’ve always wondered whether cucumber slices on closed eyes has any actual impact on our appearance or if that’s just some old-Hollywood starlet myth. Turns out, they can help, but they have to be chilled. “It’s really just temperature-related,” says Dr. Durmer. “Cooling effects bring down swelling. You can also use an ice pack.”
  • Hemorrhoid cream. Another old school trick I’ve heard of, but been skeptical towards, is hemorrhoid cream, which also can reduce swelling under your eyes, Durmer says. Be frugal and very careful in your application, though. You don’t want to get this in your eyes.
  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatories like Ibuprofen. We often turn to Ibuprofen when we have a minor inflammation, and it usually helps. Could it also help calm our puffy faces and baggy eyes? Both Dr. Mike and Dr. Durmer doubt anything under the recommended dosages would go very far, skin-wise, but they don’t dispute the possibility. It’s worth a shot, especially if you’re also feeling achy from sleep deprivation.
  • Scrubs, tinted moisturizers and antioxidants. Monique Lucas, RN and chief nursing officer at Sona Dermatology & MedSpa, recommends the following skincare staples to rejuvenate a tired complexion: Adding a face scrub to your skincare routine to help remove dead skin cells and promote blood flow and a tinted moisturizer is a great way to brighten a dull complexion and hydrate your tired skin.
  • Supplement your diet with antioxidants. Foods like blueberries and apples are high in antioxidants and can help relax arteries and increase blood flow.

Dr. Heidi A, Waldorf, president and owner of Waldorf Dermatology Aesthetics notes that “looking tired” is the top complaint that she receives from women patients ranging in age from their thirties to their sixties. She has an arsenal of solutions including fillers (and also highlights the importance of a solid skincare regimen), but emphasizes the importance of reducing stress and catching those Zs, if you can.

Naps, meditation, yoga, exercise [and] psychotherapy are all useful,” Waldorf says. “In general, ‘under stress we regress’, and there are ill-defined but accepted pathways between the stress response and other skin disorders like acne, eczema and psoriasis, all of which can flare with chronic sleep deprivation.”


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