The Importance of Sleep


When it comes to our bodies, few biological functions are more important than sleep. It’s a time when the brain processes and stores memories, strengthens muscles and bones, clears out toxic waste, repairs and prepares cells to function again, and much more. Although scientists still have a lot to learn about this complex process, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that getting enough sleep is essential for good health and well-being.

Researchers are now beginning to understand how sleep fits into a wide range of biological processes, from eating and metabolism to emotional and mental health. It appears that sleep is needed for the proper functioning of many systems — including the immune system, hormone balance, memory and learning, and clearance of the buildup of waste material in the brain, which is implicated in Alzheimer’s disease.

Scientists once thought that sleep was a passive state, during which the body and brain were basically dormant. Today, we know that’s not true. We also know that not getting enough high-quality sleep can lead to serious health problems, such as heart disease, stroke, depression, obesity and diabetes.

In the past, sleep research has tended to focus on externally measurable characteristics of the brain’s activity such as electroencephalogram (EEG) patterns or eye movements, with an emphasis on how these correlate with behavioral changes. However, advances in neuroscience technology are now making it possible to study the underlying neural (nerve) mechanisms that mediate these phenomena.

As researchers probe deeper into the enigmatic world of sleep, their findings continue to amaze and intrigue. One of the most surprising discoveries is that sleep is not simply a necessary restorative process; it also appears to have many important psychological and cognitive functions, such as helping us maintain our sense of reality.

Then there are the health benefits: Scientists now recognize that a good night’s sleep can improve cognitive performance, making you more likely to be alert and make smart choices at work or school. It may even help you become more creative and learn new skills faster. The third stage of non-rapid eye movement sleep, sometimes called slow-wave sleep, is particularly important for strengthening and consolidating memories. It may explain why people who are not well-rested have a hard time remembering facts and details, especially when under stress.

In addition, studies have shown that getting enough sleep can help you stay at a healthy weight, and it is important for keeping blood sugar levels in check. During sleep, the body releases hormones that help control the use of glucose by the cells, so that when you are awake, your blood sugar doesn’t spike. Sleep also helps protect against diabetes by enhancing the body’s ability to respond to insulin, a chemical that controls blood glucose. The body also produces antibodies during sleep to protect against invading infections. In fact, research has found that a flu vaccination given during sleep is more effective than when it is administered while you are awake.