The Importance of Sleep


When you get a full night’s sleep, your body and brain rest. But getting enough good sleep isn’t always easy. A growing body of research suggests that lack of high-quality sleep may be linked to many common chronic health problems, including heart disease, diabetes, obesity, depression, and poor memory. It also can negatively affect how well you learn, react, work, and get along with others.

Sleep is a vital human need fine-tuned by millions of years of evolution to enable basic functioning and maximize the odds of survival. Yet despite the importance of sleeping, millions of people get insufficient amounts of it. In addition, sleep deprivation can make it harder to recover from illness and injury. And it can cause a wide range of symptoms, from headache to memory loss.

The amount of sleep each person needs varies widely from person to person. But research has shown that the average person needs about seven or more hours per night to get adequate, high-quality sleep.

During sleep, the body and brain undergo critical repair processes that make it possible for people to live longer, healthier lives. In fact, a good night’s sleep has been convincingly tied to a healthier body (both inside and out), a better immune response, and a more positive mood and outlook.

At the biological level, the key change during sleep is a marked reduction in responsiveness, which is associated with a shift from active, waking neuronal activity to slow, synchronized, non-responsive activity. This has been interpreted as the result of a “thalamic gating” hypothesis, in which sensory inputs are blocked at the level of the thalamus and not passed to the neocortex during this phase of sleep.

As sleep progresses, the brain’s cellular activity slowly declines further until it enters REM sleep, in which eyes move rapidly behind closed lids and brain waves mimic those of wakefulness. During this stage, the brain produces hormones that regulate the metabolism, heart rate, and breathing.

REM sleep is generally considered to be the most important of all stages of sleep, as it’s during this time that the brain performs many of its crucial maintenance and repair activities. Insufficient REM sleep can significantly raise the risk of developing a variety of conditions, including depression, anxiety, and weight gain.

Thankfully, scientists are making progress in understanding the many factors that influence sleep and how to improve the quality of sleep. But in the meantime, it’s important to prioritize sleep — just like you prioritize eating well and exercising. For more tips on improving your sleep, visit the National Sleep Foundation(link is external) website.