The Importance of Sleep

The way you feel depends in large part on your sleep. And while scientists haven’t yet answered every question about this essential process, some new research points to ways that sleep is crucial for your health and well-being.

The key to a good night’s sleep appears to be consistency, says Dr. Jennifer Martin, president of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. It’s important to set a bedtime and stick with it, even on weekends. That consistency will “train” your body to go to sleep and wake up at the times you need to. And it’s important to avoid bright lights or electronics (like smartphones) in the bedroom, which can disrupt your sleep-wake cycle.

It’s also important to be honest with yourself about your sleep needs, she adds. Some people need more than others to function properly and perform at their best. The amount of sleep that’s healthy for you can change throughout your life, too. Infants, for example, need between 12 and 16 hours of sleep per day. School-aged children need between 10 and 14 hours per night, and teenagers need between 9 and 11 hours each night. Adults need between 7 and 8 hours of sleep each night.

Sleep plays a critical role in learning and memory, and in brain health. It helps us feel calm and focused, so that we can respond quickly to stressful situations. It can help with mental clarity and physical performance, and it can improve mood and self-esteem. And sleep can help protect against some chronic health conditions, including heart disease, diabetes and depression.

In fact, a lack of sleep can actually increase the risk of certain heart problems over time. Researchers aren’t sure exactly why this is, but it may have something to do with the fact that when you don’t get enough sleep, you’re more likely to eat unhealthy foods and exercise less — factors that can negatively impact your heart.

Scientists have been aware of the importance of sleep for a long time, but it’s only recently that they’ve begun to understand what happens during sleep. In the early 1980s, a researcher named Charles Rechtschaffen discovered that when mammals are deprived of sleep, they die within two weeks. This led to deeper studies into the reasons why animals sleep, and the answer is complex.

For example, while sleep seems to be a time when the brain is quiet, it’s not. Research shows that the brain works during sleep in a similar way to when it’s awake.

Scientists have found that a specific type of brain cell called the hippocampus, which helps store memories, is active during both sleep and waking. And some researchers have found that the flip-flop switch in a region of the brain can get damaged by too little sleep, which can cause sleep disorders like narcolepsy. This discovery could lead to treatments for a variety of brain-related illnesses. So while it would be tempting to dismiss the value of sleep as a waste of time, there’s really no excuse. In fact, a growing body of evidence suggests that sleep is just as vital to our survival as the air we breathe and the food we eat.