The Importance of Sleep

Sleep is a natural state of reduced responsiveness to internal and external stimulation that includes a complex set of dynamic changes in the activity of almost every system in the body. It contrasts with wakefulness, in which the potential for sensitivity and response is enhanced. Modern medicine’s understanding of sleep is like a partially assembled jigsaw puzzle: Experts can identify many of the pieces, have some idea of what the big picture looks like, but they haven’t quite put it all together yet.

Scientists are starting to understand the importance of sleep and how it benefits the mind, body, and spirit. They know that without adequate sleep, you are more likely to have a stroke, heart attack or other serious cardiovascular disease event; develop depression or other mental illness; become obese; have trouble thinking clearly; and work more slowly and less efficiently. They also have discovered that good-quality sleep can reduce the risk of developing those diseases and improve your ability to learn, think clearly, focus on tasks, and make judgments and decisions.

Researchers believe that sleep enables the body to conserve energy by lowering the activity of most of its systems, including those involved in movement and the metabolism of food. At the same time, the brain is able to store and replenish the resources it uses for daily activities during sleep. As a result, the body is better able to deal with stress, and the immune system is more able to fight off disease.

In addition, sleep enables the body to repair and build tissue, a function that is particularly important as people age. Getting enough high-quality sleep helps people recover from exercise and injuries, improves the ability to concentrate, and supports memory formation and organization. It also helps to reduce the risk of chronic illnesses and supports healthy emotions.

Sleep deficiency is a significant health problem for an estimated 50-70 million people in the United States. A wide range of factors – including the use of electronic devices and caffeinated beverages before bed, the timing of meals and snacks, overnight or irregular shift work, and chronic health problems such as anxiety and stress – contribute to this problem.

The good news is that there are steps you can take to get more quality sleep. For example, you can try to go to bed and wake up at the same times each day and maintain a regular routine, and practice relaxation techniques before going to bed. You can also make sure that your room is quiet, dark and cool, and that you have a comfortable mattress and pillows.

If you haven’t been able to improve your sleep habits, talk to your doctor or a sleep specialist. Non-medical treatments for sleep disorders include cognitive behaviour therapy and relaxation training. In addition, your doctor may recommend medication. A number of studies show that a combination of sufficient sleep and four other traditional lifestyle factors – regular physical activity, a balanced diet, low alcohol consumption, and nonsmoking – can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.