What is sleep and why is it so important?
July 14, 2022
Can you recall a time you awoke from what seemed like a perfect night’s sleep? You likely felt ready to take on the world! That’s because everything about your body just works better when its need for sleep is met on a regular basis.
But have you ever wondered why? Why do we sleep? Why is sleep important? And what are the effects of sleep deprivation? Those are questions that still keep researchers up at night. (See what we did there?) We’ll try to answer a few.
Many people may think of sleep as simply getting some rest. In general, people lay down, close their eyes, and their brains and bodies shut down to external stimulation—unless that stimulation is strong enough to break through, like an alarm clock or a loud snore.
Sleep is actually the result of complex systems of messages and signals from different parts of the brain triggered by melatonin, light, your circadian rhythm and the amount of sleep your body needs, which is known as your sleep drive.
Your sleep drive is nothing to mess around with. For humans, sleep is as life-sustaining as food, water and air. So much so that your body will force you to fall asleep when you are not getting enough, which can be dangerous or embarrassing depending on when you begin to nod off.
Once you do start snoozing, you experience two types of sleep: rapid eye movement sleep, or REM sleep, and non-REM sleep. Each night, we go through three stages of non-REM before moving onto REM sleep, and we can do that multiple times a night.
The first stage of non-REM sleep consists of the period it takes to fall asleep. That’s when everything begins to slow down, including your heartbeat, breathing and brain waves. Then you enter the second stage, a light sleep where your body slows down and relaxes even further. The third stage is a deep sleep that helps you feel refreshed the next day.
After that, about 90 minutes after you fall asleep, you move into REM sleep. Your eye movement is rapid, your brain wave activity is close to waking levels along with your breathing, heart rate and blood pressure. This is where most of your dreaming takes place.
Why is sleep important? Researchers are still studying for answers to why sleep is so important to our optimal health and how it came to be that way.
Some say the need for sleep is an evolutionary adaptation and the result of natural selection. Darkness is more dangerous than daylight, so animals that stayed still during the night instead of wandering around were safer and more likely to survive. Animals that rested also were more likely to have the energy to hunt for food when they needed it, another benefit for survival.
Regardless of how we got here, the bottom line is that we need a certain amount of sleep to function at our best. While we are sleeping, our bodies are performing all kinds of repair and maintenance on our internal organs and our muscles, while our brain kicks some systems into overdrive.
We all feel better when we get enough sleep because the benefits of sleep are connected to almost every part of our body and all its systems.
Getting enough sleep lowers your risk for certain health conditions, reduces stress and supports your body’s immune response.
“Immune support is among the benefits of sleep,” said Katie Throop, a researcher and registered dietitian working on Nutrilite™ products. “Getting a good night's sleep is the foundation for a strong immune system and our natural ability to build virus-fighting antibodies, and we all want those.”
Getting enough sleep puts you in a generally good mood, too, making it easier to get along well with others. (Toddlers aren’t the only ones who are happier after a good night’s sleep!)
Healthy sleep also helps your brain function better, including your memory, allowing you to process the information you previously took in and preparing you to absorb new information. A well-rested mind has a sharper focus, can think more clearly and make better choices. Sleep helps restore the chemical balance in our bodies, too.
And, if your brain and body aren’t desperate for sleep with wandering thoughts and droopy eyelids, your productivity should be humming right along, whether you’re at work, home or even play. Research shows that athletes who aimed for at least 10 hours of sleep each night showed a marked improvement in their performance.
When you don’t get your nightly shuteye, you can take all those benefits of sleep we just listed and reverse them. Your risk for certain health conditions increases and your immune system can be compromised. In one study, animals that were entirely deprived of sleep showed a loss of all immune function.
Among the effects of sleep deprivation is a muddled mind, because getting a good night’s sleep is key for optimal brain function. Think of sleep like a deep cleaning for your mind, where all the clutter is tidied up, leaving you fresh and ready for a new day.
As we said above, pathways are forged between neurons in our brain during sleep, forming memories from the day’s events and allowing us to retain new information. But a sleep-deprived brain can be foggy. It will have trouble connecting those neurons and absorbing new information.
We might not be able to concentrate on our work or follow along with conversations. This makes it difficult to complete even our regular tasks let alone focus enough to learn new things. Not the best way to show up for work or school.
For those of us watching our weight, a lack of sleep can also be troublesome. Lack of sleep impacts our appetite hormones—ghrelin and leptin. Ghrelin tells our brains we’re hungry, while leptin tells us we’re full.
When we’re short on sleep, there is less leptin and more ghrelin, making those midnight snacks of high-calorie foods much more likely. Plus, when we’re tired the last thing we want to do is exercise. It can be the start to a vicious cycle that results in weight gain.
Getting enough sleep each night is so vitally important to our mental and physical health that we need to make sure we’re doing everything we can to safeguard our rest. Sleep is something we spend a third of our lives doing, and we owe it to ourselves to do it well.
There are plenty of strategies you can use to help improve your sleep, like paying attention to your exposure to light (including blue light from electronics), creating an ideal sleeping environment, avoiding caffeine late in the day and making smart lifestyle choices, like eating right and exercising.
You can also consider various vitamins, supplements or herbs that can support your efforts to get better sleep, including melatonin, chamomile or lemon balm. To learn more, read “The Best Vitamins for Sleep: Get the Rest You Need.”
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