The Importance of Sleep

There is little that compares to the feeling of waking up refreshed after a good night’s sleep. Whether it’s that first one since your new baby was born or the rest after a stressful week at work, getting enough quality sleep is important to help us live healthy lives.

Sleep is a natural process that occurs during which the body restores energy, processes memories and processes information from the environment and from internal sources. Sleep also helps in the development and maintenance of physical health, including the immune system. During sleep, the brain releases growth hormones and other chemicals that repair and strengthen cells, tissues and organs. Without adequate sleep, it’s difficult to think clearly, react quickly or get along with others. Sleep deprivation can cause serious consequences over time.

Scientists began to study the importance of sleep early in the 20th century. During the 1950s, a scientist named Roy Kohler discovered that mammals, birds and reptiles spend between one-quarter to a third of their life asleep. At the same time, scientists were still trying to understand why it was essential that animals sleep.

It was not until 1983 that a scientist named Eugene Rechtschaffen made a groundbreaking discovery: without sleep, a mammal will die. He found that when experimental animals were continuously deprived of sleep, they died within two weeks.

Research has shown that sleep is critical to a variety of biological functions, such as memory and learning, hormone regulation, metabolism, growth, and the immune system. A lack of sleep has been linked to depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder and can contribute to the onset of these disorders in susceptible individuals. Ongoing studies show that there is a direct link between mental health and sleep, and that people with poorer mental health are more likely to have difficulty sleeping.

What’s more, researchers are able to distinguish sleep from non-sleep states based on a number of behavioral and physiological criteria. These include a lower level of sensitivity to the external environment, closed eyes, low or no motor activity and a specific pattern of EEG tracings that reflects the appearance of short sequences of 11-15 Hz (sleep spindles).

While it is impossible for us to know exactly how much sleep is needed, most experts agree that seven to eight hours a night is optimal for most adults. To ensure that you are getting the right amount of sleep, set a reasonable bedtime and stick to it. Try to avoid activities that will interfere with your ability to fall asleep, such as television and computer games, and make sure you are going to bed when you feel sleepy. Regularly following these habits will “train” the brain to associate these actions with sleep and make it easier for you to go to sleep when you are ready.