Sleep is a time when most of the body’s physical and mental processes appear to go dormant. But the truth is that your brain and body are working hard to re-charge each night, and it’s important for your long-term health and wellbeing.
A growing number of studies are showing that sleeping well can improve your memory and mood, reduce your risk for some chronic conditions and even boost your athletic performance. Sleep also seems to help you maintain a healthy weight, lower your blood pressure and keep your heart in good shape.
In fact, researchers have found that a lack of sleep can actually increase your risk of some health problems. Getting enough good-quality sleep is just as important for your health as eating right, staying physically active, not smoking and avoiding too much alcohol.
For too long, our society has considered skipping sleep a sign of strength and productivity. But now, many health professionals are calling for a cultural shift in the way we view sleep. “We need to treat it as a vital health factor – just as we do with exercise, diet, and other lifestyle factors that contribute to our overall health,” says Dr. Michael J. Pelayo, a sleep expert at the University of Maryland and co-founder of The National Sleep Foundation.
The most widely accepted theory for why we sleep is that it helps us conserve energy by reducing activity and allowing the body to rest. This is thought to have evolved as a mechanism to help avoid predators while the body was at its most vulnerable during the night.
Scientists now know that your body goes through several phases of sleep during the night. This includes a period of restful non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep, and another more active rapid eye movement (REM) stage. Each cycle of NREM and REM sleep takes about 90 to 120 minutes.
Research also shows that sleep plays a role in helping new information become permanent in the brain. It helps convert short-term memories into long-term ones and may erase the less useful bits of information from your memory.
In addition, the glymphatic system of your brain clears out waste products that build up during the day. It is likely this process that helps us feel fresh and alert in the morning. For athletes, a recent study showed that good-quality NREM sleep can boost performance and reduce the risk of injury during training and matches. NREM sleep may also improve learning and memory, and improve reaction times and athletic endurance. To learn more about the importance of good sleep and how to achieve it, visit Project Sleep, a nonprofit organization that raises awareness of the benefits of quality sleep and common sleep disorders like narcolepsy. The website includes educational materials for students and parents, and also provides details on local sleep centers and narcolepsy support groups. The organization also runs a number of programs, including the Jack and Julie Narcolepsy Scholarship supporting students with narcolepsy.