Sleep is absolutely essential if you want to survive. If you’re getting 8 hours a night, we spend approximately a third of our life doing it. So, what is sleep and why is it so important. Let’s have a look at this as well as the negative effects of not sleeping enough or at all.
What Is Sleep?
You’ve been periodically sleeping since the day you were born. Sleep is categorized by altered consciousness, inhibition of voluntary muscles and particular senses, and minimisation of interactions with one’s environment. The alteration between the stages of a person’s awake and asleep states follow a pattern called your circadian timing; which is the coordination of behaviour and biology that changes with the environments day-night cycle. If you’re a species of animal that sleeps at night (mammals, birds, reptiles etc), you’re diurnal whereas the opposite is nocturnal. When you sleep, your body moves through different stages of rapid eye movement (REM sleep) and non-REM sleep that follows your ultradian sleep cycle. These stages are non-REM, NREM 1 (N1; 5-10% of total sleep), NREM 2 (N2; 45-55%), NREM 3 (N3; 15-25%) and REM (20-25%). Transitions in and out of these stages are categorized by a change is physiological processes with marked differences in brain activity seen by changes in brain waves. As you age, the amount of sleep you need each night changes with newborns needing between 14 to 17 hours and older adults (65+) only needing 7 to 8 hours per night. There are a couple of ways a person’s sleep cycle can be negatively affected; whether it be an mental, physiological or environmental cause, addressing them is essential with some being fatal.
Why Do We Sleep?
Why our bodies are programmed to sleep for extended periods of time is unknown to a degree but scientists do know some of the critical functions associated with sleep. The most evident need for why we sleep is because we get sleepy – it’s as simple as that. There must be something that is really important about sleep that our ancestors would lay, unconscious, during the night; the benefits of sleep outweigh the risks of being attacked. Evidence suggests that it is essential for our brains to organize and sort through all of the stimuli that it has been exposed to and consolidate them (short-term memories become long-term). Other research shows that sleep is an opportunity for the brain to clean itself with cerebral spinal fluid being seen to be pumped around the brain to remove the waste associated with normal cellular activity. There are studies that also theorize that it is a technique for energy conservation. Whatever the reason, it is going to make more time to find it.
Insomnia is a blanket term that is used to describe a condition where people have trouble falling and staying asleep and science has identified a couple of sources. Identifying the source of someones insomnia is crucial to correcting it. Causes of insomnia includes a poor sleep environment, irregular sleep patterns, excessive physical or mental stimulation too close to bedtime and/or psychological stress.
Apnea is a condition where a persons breathing can start and stop throughout the night which leads to a lack of oxygen that results in a person waking tired even after having a good nights rest. Obstructive sleep apnea results from relaxed throat muscles, central sleep apnea is insufficient signalling from your brain to your diaphragm which is responsible for breathing, and complex sleep apnea syndrome is a combination of both disorders. To correct both insomnia and apnea, please see a medical professional as there is treatment available to ease the symptoms.
Can It Kill You?
There have been documented cases of people going for extended periods of time without sleep for scientific investigation with the most documented case being Randy Gardner who in 1947 stayed awake for 11 days and 24 minutes (264.4 hours). His recorded has been broken multiple times with the title held by Sophie Beckett in 1998 who stayed awake for 18 days, 21 hours and 40 minutes (453.6 hours). Randy Gardners case is more known however because of the extensive documentation. No one has died as a result of lack of sleep but studies were performed in the 1980s where rats were completely deprived of sleep and after 32 days (768 hours) they were all dead. There is no agreed cause of death with scientists speculating that it could have been due to hypothermia from a drop in core temperature; a compromised immune system, extreme levels of stress or brain damage. The main reason as to why it isn’t known is because the psychological symptoms of deprivation display themselves, like hallucinations and paranoia, significantly earlier than physical symptoms. Other symptoms include impaired brain activity, cognitive dysfunction, memory problems, mood swings, depression, accident prone, heart disease, weight gain, high blood pressure and more.
There have been many studies that look into the environmental factors that negatively contribute to the duration and quality of a person’s sleep; so let’s look at some of the ways you can sleep better.
Studies have shown that exposure to particular light sources can have a negative effect as it messes with the brain’s interpretation as to when it is day and night. Exposure to light reduces a person’s melatonin levels at it is this chemical that regulates your internal body clock. Aiming to not use electronics like smartphones or tablets 1 to 2 hours before sleeping can ensure that your body has normal melatonin levels allowing you to sleep better. If this is an issue, trying using apps that decrease the amount of blue light that you device displays that changes with time of day and location. I use f.lux on my phone and PC.
There a stages of sleep in where we become less responsive to our environment but there are still things that can get through to you; like the vibration or ringtone of a phone. Ensuring that you’re not sleeping with your phone or too close to your computer can improve your quality of sleep. If your phone is your alarm clock then go get an alarm clock.
Technology can impede on our bodies ability to sleep so getting away from it entirely might be the best medicine. A study from the University of Colorado Boulder found that camping can reset a persons sleep cycle incredibly quickly. They found that people were going to sleep closer to actual night time and wake with the sunrise. Though we might not all have the opportunity to go out camping, scientists have identified that going to sleep at 9-10pm and wake at 6-7am is the most natural rhythm for our bodies to rest to. So leave your blind open a little bit, set your alarm on your clock (not your phone) and give it a go.
Establishing a daily routine and pre-bed routine can help with getting more sleep. So here is a list of things to do or avoid to aid in sleep.
- Avoiding alcohol and caffeine before bed as coffee alters your melatonin levels and alcohol increases your chances of apnea.
- Exercise has been shown to have an array of positive effects on the body with increased cognitive function and mood, reduce risk of diabetes and arthritis, decrease chances of anxiety and depression, and more. This more includes improved sleep so try to find 30 minutes of exercise a day.
- Writing down what you’ve accomplished during the day, what you’re happy for or what you’re doing tomorrow also helps. Doing this decreases the chances of having a ‘busy mind’ while trying to sleep.
- Set your body up for sleep. Whether that be playing music, lighting some lavender scented candles, meditation, stretching or yoga, establishing this as a pre-bed routine trains your body and mind to be ready for sleep.
This is a basic rundown of sleep and some of the ways that can helping in getting more of it. Sleep is an incredibly complex, ingrained behaviour that is a part of living for many forms of life. Promoting good sleeping habits is vital for a person’s physical and mental health, and well being. Now rest up, you need it.