The Significance of Sleep
By: Sara J. Pluta
All human beings require sleep. As children we fight it, as adults we invite it. But what exactly is sleep, what are the benefits, and what happens when we are sleep deprived? For most people, sleep is something we fit in daily because our bodies ask for it. But the consequences of both short and long-term sleep deprivation are broad-reaching and far more detrimental than just feeling exhausted. Studies show that short-term ‘sleep-debt’ leads to foggy brain, worsened vision, impaired driving, and difficulty remembering. Long-term effects include obesity, insulin resistance, depression, high blood pressure, and heart disease, amongst others.
Just as exercise and nutrition are essential for optimum health and happiness, so is sleep. The quality of the sleep that we get directly correlates with the quality of your waking existence, including mental sharpness, productivity, emotional balance, creativity, physical vitality, and even weight. Who knew that such a passive activity could be so beneficial!
Experts recommend eight hours of sleep per night. Some people only require six hours while others may need ten hours on a nightly basis. Sleep researchers believe that genes determine how much sleep we need, though these specific genes have yet to be discovered. We cannot train ourselves to need less sleep. A 2005 survey by the National Sleep Foundation reports that, on average, Americans sleep 6.9 hours per night, with less during the week and more on the weekend. If the general recommendation is eight hours per night then Americans are losing one hour of sleep per night, or more than two full weeks of this crucial process per year!
As people age, they tend to sleep more lightly and for shorter periods of time. Unfortunately, the amount of sleep they need stays about the same. About half of the people over the age of 65 report frequent sleeping problems, including insomnia and a lack of deep sleep.
Sleep deprivation has been proven dangerous. Those sleepy people tested by using a driving simulator or by performing a hand-eye coordination task, perform as badly or worse than those who are intoxicated. In addition, a fatigued person who drinks alcohol will become much more impaired than someone who is rested and alert. Driver fatigue results in approximately 100,000 motor vehicle accidents and 1500 deaths each year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Driving drowsy, the last stage before the body falls asleep, can result in catastrophe.
Making up for lost sleep is possible. It is best done in increments, and not all at once. Chronic sleep deprived people can fill their bank back up by getting an extra hour or two a night. As the body readjusts, the need for sleep will naturally decline. This may take a few months, but repaying this debt can do wonders for one’s health and overall feeling of wellness. “When you put away sleep debt, you become superhuman,” says William C. Dement, founder of the Stanford University Sleep Clinic.
Without sleep, the nervous system is unable to operate properly. Some experts believe that sleep gives neurons that are constantly in use while we are awake an opportunity to repair themselves. Without adequate rest, the neurons may become so exhausted or polluted with byproducts of normal cellular activities that they begin to malfunction. Parts of the brain that control emotions, decision-making processes, and social interactions slow down in activity during sleep, allowing people to sustain peak emotional and social functioning while awake.
It is reported that at least 40 million Americans each year suffer from chronic sleep disorders and an additional 20 million experience intermittent problems sleeping. These challenges result in over $15 billion in medical costs per year, however the actual indirect cost of loss of productivity greatly increases that figure.
It is not just the amount of sleep that matters, but the quality. If you are sleeping enough hours but still feel tired and sluggish the next day, your body may not be getting the right kind of rest. There are several stages of sleep and a 24-hour sleep wake cycle also known as your biological clock or circadian rhythm determines the quality of sleep that the body gets. The sleep-wake cycle is effected by many factors; nightshift work, traveling across time-zones, alcohol, caffeine, and irregular sleeping patterns.
Sleep unfolds in a cycle of recurring sleep stages that are unique from one another, from deep sleep to dreaming sleep, they are all absolutely imperative to the health of your body and mind. Each stage prepares you in its own way for the day. The sleep cycle is fairly complicated, consisting of more than just a deep to light sleep pattern, but it is predictable. The body moves back and forth between deep restorative sleep and more alert dreaming REM sleep. Together, these two major stages of sleep form a complete sleep cycle. Each phase lasts about 90 minutes and repeats four to six times a night. Most deep sleep occurs in the first half of the night and REM later in your sleep cycle.
Deep sleep is when the body repairs itself and builds up energy for the day ahead. Without adequate deep sleep, sleep deprivation is most detrimental. Whereas deep sleep restores the body, REM sleep renews the mind. REM is important for learning and memory. This is the time when your brain processes information from the day, forms neural connections that strengthen memory, and replenishes neurotransmitters and feel-good chemicals like serotonin and dopamine to increase your mood.
Tips for a good nights sleep:
- Set a schedule and keep with it during the week and on the weekends.
- Exercise at least 20-30 minutes a day.
- Avoid caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol.
- Relax before bed.
- Sleep until sunlight to reset the body’s biological clock.
- Don’t lie in bed awake. Do something until you feel tired and then go to bed.
- Control the room temperature, keeping it comfortable.
Clearly, sleep is more than just something we do every day, it is a priority. So make it one! Scheduling time for adequate sleep every night should be at the top of our to-do list.
Sara J. Pluta
A keen interest in food and nutrition led Sara to pursue a culinary degree in health-supportive cuisine and then go on to study nutrition extensively, as she earned a BS, MS, and completed coursework for her doctorate in Holistic Nutrition. Sara has been in the Natural Products Industry for over 15 years where she enjoys empowering people through education and enthusiasm. Sara is a passionate speaker and a natural teacher who blends modern science, ancient wisdom, and human interest to connect with her audience.