When it comes to human health, few factors are as undervalued and misunderstood as sleep. Once considered a period of dormancy, it’s now known to be an active process that plays key roles in memory, learning, emotions, and even regulating the immune system against common illnesses like the common cold. Sleep is so important, in fact, that experts devote their entire lives to understanding its mysterious workings.
The science of sleep is constantly evolving, and we’re still uncovering some of its most intriguing secrets. In 1953, physiologists Eugene Aserinsky and Nathaniel Kleitman made the revolutionary discovery that rapid eye movement (REM) sleep is distinct from other sleeping stages and is characterized by brain patterns more nearly aligned with activated wakefulness. Their finding upended the prevailing view of sleep as a state of recuperative deactivation and ushered in a new era of research into the role of sleep in the body and mind.
A good night’s sleep can boost your mental performance, allowing you to think clearly and make decisions. It’s also been shown to improve your ability to pay attention and be creative. Studies have also linked sleep to the formation of new pathways in the brain that help you learn and remember information. Insufficient sleep can have the opposite effect, causing you to struggle with making decisions, dealing with change, and controlling your emotions.
When you are deficient in sleep, your physical functioning is impacted as well. You can develop heart problems, high blood pressure, and diabetes, and you may have difficulty concentrating on work or school tasks. You can even become irritable and prone to mood swings.
The immune system depends on sleep to maintain its protective abilities against infections. During sleep, your body produces special proteins and cells that detect and destroy germs and other harmful substances. In addition, the cells that support the immune system can learn to recognize and respond quickly to these invaders the next time they come into contact with them.
Several recent studies have found that people who get sufficient sleep are less likely to have heart disease, and the effects are comparable to those of regular exercise, a healthy diet, moderate alcohol consumption, and non-smoking. This makes sleep one of the “Life’s Simple 7”—a group of health habits that the American Heart Association recommends for maintaining a lower risk for cardiovascular disease.
How much sleep you need varies from person to person, but most experts agree that adults should aim for seven or more hours per night. Incorporate sleep into your daily routine by establishing a consistent bedtime and setting a reasonable alarm clock. Create a calming bedroom environment by dimming bright lights and using a white noise app or a relaxing bedtime ritual. Sleeping with your phone on or nearby can be disruptive, so you should set it aside at least an hour before bed.