Sleep is one of the most vital activities we ca do, next to the nourishment of our bodies and yet many of us today are severely down playing its importance. This is not so much due to the fact that we don’t like it, as many of us love to sleep, but mostly due to the extremely hectic lifestyles we lead.
Some people feel that a few hours a night or at various parts of the day is enough. Others can be found saying “I’ll sleep when I die”. While others yet, just plain and simple do not understand the importance of sleep.
Although many people may think that eating is more important than sleeping, the truth is we would actually be able to survive longer without food, than without sleep. We just cannot undermine how critically important this precious activity is to our overall well being and survival.
Thus as the American National Sleep Foundation celebrates its annual sleep awareness week at the start of each March, here on Evolving Wellness, I would like to take you through a five part series entitled “Sleep Aware”, where you will get a chance to have a quick and concise summary of why we need to sleep, what happens when we sleep, how much sleep do we need, what hurts and helps our sleep and finally some information about natural sleeping aids.
Hence today, let us begin with why we need to sleep. There are really 3 main reasons, but hundreds if not thousands of secondary reasons, that branch off of those three.
Primarily sleep is mandatory for the following 3 areas:
- Good physical health
- Good emotional health
- Good mental health
Now, we also have to consider the “quality” and “quantity” of your sleep, as that will make the difference between poor health, good health and optimal health.
It could easily take, at least 1 book to try to explain all of the hundreds of reasons why we need to sleep and as we speak scientists are still learning more. Thus in this part of our series, I want to give you a quick, concise and easy to understand summary of those reasons. So let us begin with the first one.
For Optimal Physical Health
Simply put, sleep is a recuperative process for the body. Thus, one of the first and most obvious things that happens when we sleep is the growth and repair of all of our tissues. This includes rapid cell division that heals, repairs and builds new parts for us. This often includes the repair of muscle tissue and is thus extremely important for athletes or active people. It also includes the production of new blood cells, increased wound healing and much more. This point alone should also come as no surprise then, as to why kids, but especially babies need SO much sleep, as they are at the highest growth phase of their lives.
Sleep is thus considered an anabolic process, which means that our body is making things during this time. Aside from making new cells, scientists believe that our body replenishes much of its vital energy during the time we sleep. Hence no surprise that after a night of good sleep, we wake up energized, versus the drowsy, tired and drained feeling we have if we do not get enough sleep.
In fact not only does sleep replenish our energy levels, but research has also shown that those people who get regular, good quality sleep also have more even and stable energy levels throughout the day.
Out of the numerous research studies that have been conducted up to this time, we can find many studies that have been published in the American Journal of Physiology that all point to the fact that loss of, lack of or just plain and simple not enough sleep all leads to a weakened immune system, more stress on one’s organs, especially the liver and increased risk for various infections. In fact studies show that one’s immune system begins to show small signs of weakening after only 24 hours of sleep deprivation, and much more after 48 hours or more.
Sleep also has a huge effect on how we age. Research has shown that sleep deprived individuals have shorter life spans and in general age faster and more prominently. One of the biggest reasons for this is that during the time of sleep only, our body makes melatonin, a hormone which is the most powerful anti-oxidant that the body makes. Melatonin is made from the amino acid tryptophan. Anti-oxidants are compounds that fight free radicals, these are substances that cause damage to our DNA thus increasing our chances of various diseases, especially cancers. Anti-oxidants also fix damage done at the cellular level and hence they repair tissues that would otherwise lead to increased damage which show up in the signs of what we know today to be the ageing process.
During sleep our bodies also secrete a hormone called growth hormone. Growth hormone levels are highest when we are children, as the name implies it is a hormone crucial for proper growth and development. However, as we age into adulthood and beyond, our growth hormone levels fall. Thus the less we sleep, the less growth hormone we release, and add this to the already decreasing levels of it and you can understand where the increased ageing and infections come from. This hormone is not just critical in the physical growth of kids, but in the growth and rebuilding of all of our cells throughout our entire lives. Hence, a proper amount of sleep allows you to maximize on your growth hormone.
Finally, some research has already shown that individuals who suffer from sleep deprivation are more prone to be overweight, and have a greater risk for diabetes type 2 and even metabolic syndrome as a whole. Many of these studies are taking place currently to strengthen the links. Similar studies in children have already shown this effect too, such as a study from Harvard about which you can read more here.
Therefore, the link between the above processes that our body undertakes during sleep and optimal physical health is that during sleep all of these work together for the common and main goal of cleaning up and repairing damage we suffered or energy we lost during the day and building and replenishing new cells, tissues and organs. So as you may already guess, adults who are extra physically or mentally active do generally require more sleep than similar counterparts who aren’t.
Thus sleep is extremely important for the optimal health of our physical body, as through the many chemical and physical reactions, it keeps our bodies strong, healthy, vibrant and energized.
For Optimal Emotional Health
Lack of sleep has been linked in many studies to various mood disorders. This includes increased irritability, anxiety, depression and nerves.
People who sleep well consistently have increased, good life coping skills and are able to deal with stresses that come their way each day in much more efficient and positive ways. They also generally radiate a more positive outlook on life.
Taking the studies aside though, simply think of yourself and how you feel the next morning or after a few days of improper sleep. We usually have shorter tempers, are more likely to snap in anger, make a bigger deal out of the little things and find that more things irritate us.
Thus, for optimal emotional health we cannot underestimate the power of sleep. Do not look for pills to fix your mood, as the problem may lie in something as simple as the quantity and quality of your sleep.
For Optimal Mental Health
When it comes to mental health, many people think that our brains “rest” or get “turned off” when we sleep. Nothing in fact can be further from the truth. While our body does rest, our brain continues its activity, however at different neural levels, which we will discuss in part 2 of this series, when we talk about what happens when we sleep.
Numerous sleep tests that are run on patients have repeatedly proven that our brain is in fact very active when we are asleep. Think about it too, something still has to control your breathing, heart rate, release of hormones and many, many other chemical reactions. The question then remains, what is it doing and how is that so different from what it does when we are physically awake.
To test how our mental health is impacted by sleep, scientists had to deprive individuals of sleep in their studies, to determine what is most affected when we do not sleep.
Based on these experiments, studies have consistently shown that lack of sleep severely affects our concentration, reflexes and memory.
Thus through proper sleep we get:
increased concentration, which is critical especially for students or people who have mentally intensive jobs
improved memory, which increases organizational skills and puts our minds at ease
improved coordination and reflexes, which play a huge role in parenting babies or young children or for driving
improved critical thinking skills, which give us a better ability to make decisions and cope with the environment around us
improved alertness, which again is especially critical for driving
When the brain is tired, this also has a direct affect on our vision, hence do not be surprised if you notice more blurry or strained vision if you are not sleeping enough.
Last but not least our mental health is very closely tied to our emotional health, and thus again we need sleep and good sleep at that for an overall good feeling not just in the body, but also in our mind.
In conclusion, we must thus understand that sleep and in fact quality sleep is crucial for a healthy and happy life. Many of us love sleep, but simply do not make enough time for it, or have lives that are so imbalanced that when we do want to sleep, we just can’t.
We must therefore be very aware of the great importance of sleep and make changes in our lives to not only accommodate for an appropriate quantity of it, but also quality of it. Without proper sleep, we simply cannot have balanced and optimal health. While some people may eat great, or exercise great, sleep is also a necessary component in the whole and balanced picture of optimal health, as otherwise it will always remain the weakest link that constantly pulls a part of our health down.
In part 2 we will discover what actually happens to us when we sleep.
Till then, sleep well!
For more help and information on sleep check out the following sites: