The Importance of Sleep


When it comes to our health, sleep is often taken for granted. Yet this basic need, finely tuned by millions of years of evolution to enable almost all daily functions, is actually a critical component of both physical and mental health. In fact, getting enough high-quality sleep helps keep your immune system strong and improves the efficiency of your body’s natural defenses against common diseases like the common cold or the flu. Similarly, a lack of quality sleep can weaken the brain and make you more susceptible to stress and anxiety.

The complex relationship between sleep and overall wellness is well documented, and a variety of medical conditions can be triggered by poor sleep or related problems. Fortunately, good habits can help ensure you get the restful slumber that your body and mind need.

Although it is a “passive” activity in which consciousness is altered and certain sensory activities are inhibited, sleep is actually a very active process. Scientists have identified many different physiological changes that take place during the various stages of sleep, each with its own particular significance to your overall health.

For example, during the first phase of sleep known as non-rapid eye movement (NREM), blood flow increases to muscles, allowing them to grow and repair themselves. During this time, your heart rate and breathing also rise and fall, a process that helps regulate blood pressure and metabolism. Additionally, the release of hormones during sleep can influence your appetite and food choices.

The NREM cycle is followed by a period of rapid eye movements (REM), during which the brain becomes more active and the EEG patterns become superficially similar to those of wakefulness. However, REM sleep also has its own distinct physical and behavioral characteristics.

One of the most interesting aspects of REM sleep is that dreaming occurs during this period. The purpose of dreams isn’t completely understood, but some experts believe that they help the brain consolidate memories and decide which to keep in long-term memory and which to let fade away. Others suggest that they allow us to think about emotional issues or act out fantasies in a safe and protected environment.

Other benefits of adequate sleep include improved memory and thinking skills, and a better ability to deal with stress. However, insufficient sleep is also linked to a number of serious health issues, including obesity, diabetes, heart disease, depression and dementia.

Consequently, the Royal College of GPs recommends that all GPs should be trained and have access to a tool to assess patients for sleep problems. In addition, new national health outcomes should include a target to reduce sleep problems. Sleep problems are also common in children and adolescents, and they can significantly impair their learning and development. As a result, it is vital that parents and teachers promote the importance of sleep in their children and adolescents, and that they provide them with a healthy and relaxing environment that supports restful slumber.