The Importance of Sleep

As you drift off to sleep, your body and brain are working to support health, growth, memory, mental alertness and emotional stability. During this important time, the brain also sweeps out waste and repairs cells. It is no wonder that people who regularly get insufficient sleep are at higher risk for a variety of serious health problems, including weight gain, high blood pressure and heart disease.

In the last two decades, scientific research into the importance of sleep has exploded. It is now well established that the loss of just one night’s sleep results in reduced mental alertness, as well as reduced physical performance and learning abilities. In addition, people who do not get enough sleep are at increased risk for diabetes and a range of other metabolic conditions. It is recommended that adults get at least seven hours of sleep each night for optimal health.

While the benefits of sleep are clear, scientists still struggle to understand what exactly happens when we slumber. What we do know is that sleeping is a vital activity for all mammals and other animals. It is believed that this behavior evolved as a way for humans to adapt to living on a planet with a 24-hour day-and-night cycle. During the day, animals must find food, shelter and avoid predators, while at night they need to rest and regenerate their energy.

There are many theories about why people need to sleep, but most agree that it is a vital part of our health and well-being. Brain plasticity theory, for example, posits that a good night’s sleep helps the brain to grow and reorganize itself and make new neural connections. This, in turn, aids our cognitive thinking and ability to learn.

Getting sufficient amounts of sleep is also thought to be important in maintaining healthy hormone levels, which are responsible for everything from hunger to stress. When we are stressed, we experience sleep disturbances that can contribute to our feelings of anxiety and depression. During sleep, the body releases chemicals that help to reduce these feelings and promote relaxation and healthy moods.

Another theory is that sleep is necessary to keep the immune system strong. When we do not have adequate sleep, the immune system is unable to fight off germs and infections that can cause common illnesses like colds and flu. During sleep, the immune system can rebuild and recover, so it is ready to fight off any future attacks from viruses or bacteria.

While the science behind sleep is advancing rapidly, a gap remains between the knowledge we have and how it is used in practice. Some groups of people, such as Black and Latino people and those with lower socioeconomic status, are less likely to be screened for, diagnosed and treated for sleep disorders than others. This could be due to barriers such as racism in healthcare settings, lack of affordable or accessible care and difficulties accessing transportation and child care.