Sleep It Off
In many ways, sleep remains one of the last frontiers. It’s largely unknown territory. Even though we spend a full third of our lives in this unconscious state, we know relatively little about this mysterious state of being. What’s it for? Why is it so important? Do I really need to spend seven to nine hours every day sleeping?
The answers are: We’re still learning; we’re not sure, but we know for certain it’s utterly essential, and yes; you really need to spend about eight out of every 24 hours sleeping. In some ways it’s easier to say what happens when we don’t sleep. Sleep deprivation has repeatedly been shown to lead to all kinds of health problems. In fact, sleep deprivation is so damaging, and unpleasant, it’s been used as a form of torture.
When we don’t get enough sleep, the body goes into a tailspin. The ability to regulate body temperature begins to falter, causing odd sensations of hot flashes and shivers throughout the day. The immune system weakens. Inflammation increases. Appetite control changes, and brain function suffers. Lessons learned during the day may not be retained, since “memory consolidation” appears to be an important function of sleep. People who are sleep deprived lose the ability to reason and think clearly, and their reaction times suffer. And that’s just the beginning. Sleep loss is linked to everything from high blood pressure, to a greater risk of anxiety and depression, to a greater likelihood that one will develop cancer.
Countless Americans struggle with ordinary day-to-day sleep deprivation—resulting from spending too few hours asleep each night. It’s been estimated to contribute substantially to things like automobile accidents, and workplace accidents, not to mention lost productivity and poor work performance. Whether it’s your dentist or the pilot of the jet you may be flying on, the last thing you want is for one of these professionals to show up for work sleep deprived. Yet, all too often, people slog through life in a perpetual state of sleep deficit.
Scientists note that many important repair and maintenance functions take place during sleep. While it might seem that sleep is a time for the brain to “turn off,” nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, during the recurring rapid eye movement (REM) phase of sleep, there’s substantial activity going on, similar to that experienced while awake. This is dream sleep—another mystery. We’re not sure why the brain “plays movies” in our heads while we sleep, but we know that even this aspect of sleep is crucial. Many people say they don’t dream. While it may be true that they don’t remember their dreams, it’s almost certain that they dream just as often as the rest of us.
Check back tomorrow. I’ll discuss some strategies to enhance healthful sleep naturally.
Halson SL1. Sleep in elite athletes and nutritional interventions to enhance sleep. Sports Med. 2014 May;44 Suppl 1:S13-23. doi: 10.1007/s40279-014-0147-0.
Ingram LA, Simpson RJ, et al. Sleep disruption and its effect on lymphocyte redeployment following an acute bout of exercise. Brain Behav Immun. 2015 Jan 9. pii: S0889-1591(14)00607-2. doi: 10.1016/j.bbi.2014.12.018. [Epub ahead of print]