What Happens During a Good Night’s Sleep?

There’s no better feeling than waking up refreshed after a good night’s sleep. It can make the difference between a long, dreary day and a day filled with energy and optimism. But what exactly happens during a good night’s sleep that makes such a profound difference in how we feel? And if we understand that, can we make getting enough sleep a priority in our lives?

Sleep is one of the brain’s most active states. It seems like an inert state, but researchers who study it have discovered that the brain is working to protect and promote our health while we slumber. They are even finding that sleep may be able to prevent diseases, improve our intellect and help us cope with stress and mood disorders. And despite the fact that it is difficult to prioritize sleep amidst the demands of work, family and other responsibilities, sleep deprivation can have serious repercussions.

We are all familiar with the many physical benefits of sleeping well, from boosting our immune system to reducing the risk of heart disease and diabetes. But the mental and emotional benefits of a good night’s sleep are often overlooked. The reality is that sleep is just as important for our wellbeing as food, exercise and fresh air are.

During a good night’s sleep, the brain’s electrical signaling relaxes, shifting from fast, rapid alpha waves to slower theta and finally slow wave sleep. This is an essential part of the restorative process that supports your body’s physical recovery, including muscle mass, bone density and metabolism.

It also helps to strengthen and support the brain’s ability to learn and remember. Studies have shown that a lack of sleep can impair the consolidation and storage of memories, and even contribute to depression and anxiety. In fact, people with a chronic illness, such as diabetes, asthma or arthritis, are at higher risk of mental health problems, and are more likely to have difficulty falling and staying asleep.

Researchers are continuing to explore the complex nature of sleep, which they see as a dynamic process that can be defined along three dimensions: behavioral, phenomenological and physiological. They are discovering that sleep can dissociate into distinct components, and that the global view of sleep as a single non-remative (NREM) or remative (REM) state fails to account for these differences.

This evidence points to a scenario wherein sleep is first and foremost initiated and regulated locally, in order to preserve homeostasis of local cortical networks and, ultimately, the whole brain (Krueger et al., 2019). This suggests that the current paradigm is insufficient to understand the full complexity of this fascinating biological phenomenon. As we will discuss below, this fine-grained spatio-temporal description of sleep dynamics will also be crucial for developing effective treatment strategies to treat psychiatric conditions that are associated with impaired sleep. This includes sleep apnea, which is found to be more common in individuals with psychiatric conditions and can have serious consequences for their health.