We spend a significant amount of our lives sleeping. To put it down in numbers, if we live up to 90 years old we will sleep approximately 32 years. The figures are intimidating and so is the attitude of many, often historically important, people towards sleep.
Margaret Thatcher famously stated that “sleep is for wimps”, herself sleeping only a mere 4 hours a day. Before her, Thomas Edison, the inventor of the light bulb, quoted that “sleep is a criminal waste of time, inherited from our cage days”. Still, their beliefs about sleep come to a complete contrast with what Einstein did; he slept for 10 hours a day.
If we follow Thatcher’s and Edison’s belief then many of us either oversleep or are just about right on sleeping times, whereas if we follow Einstein’s then we are not sleeping enough. Where does the truth lie though?
It is obvious that many of us, myself included, treat sleep like an enemy. Something that stops us from the endless list of our daily tasks. Stop for a while and think, how many times have you thought the extra hours a day you would gain if you didn’t have to go to bed? If your body and mind could stay awake for, well, ever?
What we often hear ourselves saying is that “we only need one extra hour a day, to finish off the laundry, or tomorrow’s meeting presentation”. If you are a mother, then you probably need a couple hours more to look after your children and your life. Those hours are taken from our sleep time without hesitation.
This approach, however, is incorrect. We need to learn and appreciate sleep more because the truth is that sleep, we simply cannot do without. It has nothing to do with laziness, that many often believe. It has to do with the fact that even a minimal amount of sleep-loss affects our mood, energy, ability to handle stress and everyday routine. Persistent sleep deprivation can potentially lead to chronic physical and mental health problems.
But in order to change our attitude towards it, we need to understand sleep more.
What is sleep?
Sleep was once considered an inactive, “turned off” state the body and mind went into in order to rest and recuperate from the day’s activities. Scientists, however, discovered that the brain during sleep, sometimes, is more active than when we are awake.
During sleep, we fall into a state of total or partial consciousness during which all voluntary muscles are inactive but are brain continues working. It is the body’s rest cycle. All body cells, during that time, repair themselves and bones, muscle and nervous tissue grow.
Why do we need to sleep?
Sleep is not just a period of time that you are not awake. Think how tired, grumpy and overwhelmingly sleepy you feel after only a couple of hours of night’s sleep. Now, think how happy, full of energy and alert you feel when you had a proper night’s rest.
Those differences can help us begin to understand why sleep is important. The answer, however, to the question is a bit more complex:
- A sleep deprived, over-worked brain can no longer function and process information correctly. It loses its ability to access previously “stored” information and plan accordingly. As a consequence, we cannot think clearly, react quickly and create memories. Our ability to make right decisions is affected, our response time decreases and we take unnecessary risks. Our learning capability also dramatically decreases.
- Scientists at the University of Rochester quite recently, also, found that the brain, while we are fast asleep, cleans up all the waste that has been accumulated during the day. This cleansing process takes place while we are awake too, but it doubles in speed while we sleep. All waste is flown down to the liver and the brain restores itself and its proper function.
- Even though our body produces hormones non-stop, some types are only produced during sleep. Those sleep-only hormones help muscles grow, cells repair and infections heal. They also help maintain the collagen matrix of the skin and hence its youthful appearance, as they also control how the body uses energy and respectively our appetite and weight.
- Sleep is a natural moisturizer. During sleep, the whole body perspires more and this moisture on the skin acts as a special beauty treatment smoothing out wrinkles.
What effects does sleep deprivation have?
Sleep is not a luxury but a necessity, as is nutrition and exercise, for optimal health. And while nutrition and exercise are two terms that we are all familiar with and know their impact on our life and health, the same does not account for sleep. People who fail to get sufficient sleep, especially on a regular basis, are prone to chronic health problems, like:
Power nap booster:
There will always be times that your bedtime will be pushed later. The way to help you go through the day not feeling sleepy is to have a power nap. A short nap (20-30 minutes) during the day will reset your body and mind by:
- Increasing alertness and productivity
- Improving memory and learning
- Boosting creativity
- Improving decision making
- Reduced immunity and susceptibility to frequent colds and infections
- Slower healing process of any infection or trauma
- Increased risk of diabetes
- Increased risk of heart disease and high blood pressure
- Headaches and chronic migraines
- During pregnancy, can result in longer labors and increase the possibility of cesarean delivery
- Hand tremors and body aches, especially in the muscles
- Memory and concentration problems
- Lower life expectancy
On average, an adult needs 7.5- 9 hours of sleep in order to function at their full potential, even though times vary slightly between individuals. The best way to understand your sleep need is to see how you perform during the day with the amount of sleep you had. If you are full of energy from the moment you wake up till bedtime, then you are sleeping enough hours.
No matter how busy your lifestyle is and how strongly you believe you cannot spare enough time for a proper sleep, you need to find the time. In the same way, you make time for your work and other commitments, you should learn and make enough time for sleep and as Homer wrote on “The Odyssey“:
…there is a time for many words, and there is also a time for sleep…