We spend about one-third of our lives sleeping. Needless to say, sleep is therefore an integral part of our existence. The full purpose of sleep, however, has intrigued scientists and researchers for many years. As we slowly unravel the mysteries behind why we sleep, it has become clear that sleep plays a crucial role in our overall health and well-being and can no longer be ignored.
So why do we sleep exactly – what’s all the fuss about?
The purpose of sleep is multifaceted and serves vital functions. This is what we know so far:
- Survival: Firstly, it’s absolutely critical for survival, without sleep, we don’t live, it’s that simple.
- Brain connectivity: During the day, we constantly learn new information or skills. While we sleep, the neural pathways that are necessary for us to retain this information are reinforced. Sleep therefore plays a pivotal role in consolidating memories and information acquired during the day.
- Brain waste clearance: There is a very important housekeeping function that occurs while we sleep, and this is related to our glymphatic system. Essentially, toxins are removed from the brain while we sleep. This is really important for the removal of a protein called beta-amyloid which may contribute to neurological disorders (such as Alzheimer’s) if not effectively removed.
- Energy conservation: Sleep is a period where we reduce our caloric requirement and our metabolic rate slows. Sleep therefore helps to conserve energy and allow the body to allocate resources efficiently.
- Restoration and repair: We do a huge amount of repair and regeneration while we sleep. Sleep provides an opportunity for our bodies to recover and rejuvenate. During deep sleep specifically, tissues and muscles are repaired which promotes healing and recovery from daily wear and tear.
- Immune function: During the daytime, your immune system is busy protecting you against inhaled or ingested pathogens but while we sleep the immune system change’s its function. During sleep, your immune system trawls your body, identifies damaged or mutated cells and gets rid of them. It also makes antibodies so that you can have protection against the viruses or germs to which you were exposed to during the daytime.
The importance of sleep:
In this fast-paced world that celebrates productivity and constant engagement, sleep is sometimes sacrificed to make room for more activities. The importance of sleep is often underestimated. Here are some reasons why burning the midnight oil might not be so good for you:
- Physical Health: Insufficient sleep is associated with an increased risk of chronic health conditions such as obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and weakened immune function.
- Mental Health: Sleep plays a critical role in mental and emotional health. There is a well-known two-way relationship between sleep and mental health: poor sleep can worsen mood and lead to the development of disorders such as depression and anxiety while these disorders usually go hand-in-hand with various sleep problems.
- Cognitive Function: Sleep deprivation impairs cognitive function, including concentration, attention, problem-solving, and decision-making abilities.
- Hormonal Regulation: Lack of sleep disrupts the production of essential hormones, such as those responsible for appetite regulation (leptin and ghrelin), leading to potential weight gain and metabolic issues.
- Daytime Performance: A well-rested individual exhibits improved performance, productivity, and alertness during waking hours, leading to enhanced efficiency and reduced chances of accidents or errors.
How much sleep do I need then?
We have all heard someone say that you need 8 hours of sleep. This is, in fact, only half true. The National Sleep Foundation recommend that adults (age 18-64y) should aim for 7-9h of sleep each night for optimal physical and mental health. So, there is actually a range of sleep, and it is not a one-size-fits-all of 8h. It is very important to note that individual variations exist. Some people may feel adequately rested with slightly more (up to 10h) or less sleep (down to 6h) than the recommended ranges.
Overall, sleep is a fundamental but complicated process that serves essential functions for both our bodies and minds. The importance of quality sleep cannot be overstated, as it impacts every aspect of our health and well-being. We now know that sleep is just as vital as regular exercise and eating a balanced diet. Good quality sleep allows you to be on your a-game, everyday.