The Real Importance of Sleep

It's a question that's baffled scientists for centuries - why do we need sleep? Deep research into the science behind sleep has only occurred in the last few decades. From believing that sleep was a passive state closer to death, to realizing that it is actually a very active state with definite biological functions, the philosophy of why we need sleep has evolved along with the science. 

As the world and life is changing around us, so are our sleep schedules. Busy lives demand living a fast paced life and often sacrificing on this important physiological process. Biologically, sleep is governed by a daily cycle called a circadian rhythm and when the cycle is disrupted often enough the result is a sleep disorder. 

A sleep disorder that many people suffer from is insomnia. When a person suffers from a sleep disorder, they need to correct their sleeping pattern, through taking pharmaceutical drugs, or trying something more natural such as behavioral therapy or natural supplements.
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What is sleep?

Sleep is classified as a decreased state of consciousness that is (most importantly) easily reversible. It's quite easy to notice when a person is asleep, but scientists use measures of electrical activity of the brain, heart and muscles to definitively characterize sleep. 

Brain waves measured by an electroencephalogram (EEG), show distinct changes as a person progresses through various cycles of sleep. There is a lot of detail that characterizes the 4 stages of sleep but most importantly, there are three phases of slowing brain activity called non rapid eye movement (REM) sleep; and REM sleep which has high levels of brain activity. It is mostly during REM sleep that we dream. 

How much sleep a person should get

There is no magic number to suit everybody because each person has a different schedule that has different energy requirements. So the actual amount of sleep each individual needs is specific to them. 

However, most experts agree that the range should be between 7 and 9 hours per day. The best way to determine the actual amount of sleep you need is to listen to your natural cues. Although we often ignore these, it is best to go to bed when we feel tired and wake up when we feel rested.

Effects of too little sleep

Getting too little sleep can lead to many negative health effects - some experts have discovered. In the immediate term, the result is fatigue and a lack of energy. This can lead to mood swings and irritability, which can lead to other psychological problems including depression. Cognitive function is also affected. The ability to process information and make decisions becomes slower and less reliable. The immune system is also weakened which increases the chance of getting an infection. Finally, scientists have also linked insufficient levels of sleep to increasing risks of chronic diseases like stroke, diabetes, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer's disease, and even cancer.

So we know sleep is important but what does it really do?

There are a variety of approaches to contemplating the functions of sleep. From an evolutionary point of view, sleep is necessary for conserving energy. Notably less energy is expended during sleep, so this theory states that by forcing inactivity, the body is given a chance to regenerate the molecules necessary for energy as well as other biomolecules that perform metabolic functions. Another theory relates sleep to food consumption. For example, herbivores need to sleep less because they spend more time eating because their food is lower in nutrients. Or they could spend less time sleeping because they have to avoid predators.

In humans, it has been determined that sleep is vital to the formation of memory and for brain development. The brain receives a massive amount of stimuli during the day, and these stimuli cause brain cells to connect to one another. Their connection is what forms memories. But it just doesn't make sense energetically to keep every single detail as a memory so during sleep, the brain strengthens important connections and destroys weak ones. This is the process that contributes to retaining memories and learning new concepts. 

In summary, it makes logical sense that sleep is needed for a period of lower activity to allow the body to regenerate its energy and other molecules such as those required to maintain mood stability, but sleep also has a much more important function related to brain development. Memories are made and stored during sleep, so sleep is one of the major contributors as to why the human brain is so powerful. 

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