An Introduction, What is Sleep?
Sleep is one of the five biological needs of not only humans, but most living animals. It is essentially the resting and rebuilding period that keeps us going day after day. This essential basic need in today’s world is often ignored or overlooked, and this has always caused more harm than good. Sleep, in order to fully function, is required in seven to eight hours for an adult. This is an absolute necessity, not a luxury.
How Does Sleep Actually Work?
Everyone knows that sleep is shutting down and resting, but what are the inner workings of this function? Sleep happens in four stages, but they are non-sequential.
Stage one of sleep, is known as the transition phase. It is light sleep that readies the brain to change its processing. This is done through brain waves that tell the body to slow its function, and this stage only lasts 5-10 minutes.
Stage two is one of the most frequent occurring stages in our natural sleep cycle. This is when the brain begins sending very rapid waves, called Sleep Spindles. Sleep Spindles lower the body’s temperature, slow down the heartbeat, and makes you less aware of your surroundings. About 50% of our sleep happens in this stage.
Stage three is both related and similar to stage four. It is called NREM (Non Rapid-Eye Movement). The function of this stage is to relax the muscles, and drop blood pressure and heart rate even more. This is done through very deep, slow brain waves called Delta waves. During this stage, we become less responsive to the activity in our environment and noises- basically outside stimulus is ignored. This, ultimately, is the transition from light sleep to deep sleep.
Finally, we get to stage 4, which is both the most important, and the most fascinating stage: REM (Rapid-Eye Movement) Sleep. Interestingly, the brain becomes more active during this stage, and we dream. When we dream, our eyes are rapidly moving around, but our body is immobilized and relaxed in order for us not to act out our dreams. The respiration rate increases, but the body still stays as is. 20% of our sleep is in this stage, the deepest sleep stage.
These stages do not necessarily occur in order. After we get through stages one, two, and three, the body goes back to stage two, where rapid brain waves are sent again before going into stage four. Once stage four is over, we go back to stage two of our sleep cycle. This entire sequence is repeated 4-5 times at night.
The Benefits of a Healthy Sleep Cycle
We now have an idea of how sleep works, but how does it benefit us? Studies have shown that sleep helps us both physically and mentally. Let’s start with the physical. Sleep has shown the strengthening of the immune system, meaning we’re less likely to get sick; we also see the maintenance of organs such as the heart, keeping them healthy and strong. This happens because the body repairs at a much more efficient rate when we are sleeping than when we are awake.
As for our mental health, sleep improves our concentration and attention, it stabilizes our mood, and lowers our stress levels. These benefits are essential for us to think clearly and succeed at accomplishing our goals.
Furthermore, sleep is highly important for one factor: memory consolidation. Memory consolidation means retaining our memories, where our short term and working memories- basically recent memories, are stored in our long-term memories to be remembered at later times, even years later, sometimes for life if the events/memories are strong and influential enough.
The Dangerous Cons of Not Getting Proper Sleep
Not getting enough sleep, which is unfortunately too common in today’s society, has some terrible side effects that should/can be avoided. Primarily, insufficient sleep leads to deteriorating work performance, problems with mood and relationships, and even to car crashes where people fall asleep behind the wheel or don’t have the optimal concentration to drive.
Sleep deprivation has both mental and physical side effects, it increases stress, anxiety, and has been linked to depression. Mood changes, forgetfulness, and lack of focus are all linked to lack of sleep too. The brain sometimes needs to rest and to function to heal itself. Staying away for prolonged period can also lead to hallucinations, and these hallucinations can make it hard for someone to sleep.
Insomnia, the most common sleep disorder in the world, is when a person has trouble falling or staying asleep, and if this continues for over a month, it’s considered chronic insomnia and all of the negative effects listed are shown and heightened.
The physical side of sleep deprivation, is a raise in high blood pressure, a link to heart disease and diabetes, and even obesity, and strokes (heart attack).
Be mindful that oversleeping is just as bad as under sleeping, over 9-10 hours of sleep causes disruptions in the brain that lead to both diseases and cognitive problems. These include but are not limited to depression, pain, an increased risk of obesity, diabetes, and impaired fertility.
This is why it’s important to get the right amount of sleep at the right time, at night when our body’s rhythm is stable, and 6-10 hours but no more no less.
What Can I Do if I Can’t Sleep?
If you have trouble sleeping, there’s a variety of activities and habits that can help you get the much needed sleep that each and every one of us needs. Primarily, exercise and healthy eating. Exercise will exhaust the body, and healthy eating (excluding night meals) will give the body and brain the nutrients to repair and go into sleep cycles without interruption. If you still can’t sleep properly, limiting naps and not drinking caffeinated drinks after 6-8pm is also helpful.
One of the main problems why people can’t sleep is not physical. You might be ready to sleep at night, and have done everything right, but your brain still won’t shut off. Over-thinking can disrupt the process of trying to sleep, so when this happens, write all of these thoughts down. Whatever comes to your head, put it on paper in front of you; this form of expression relieves the mind as you are working through the complications in your head and can see them clearly in front of you, instead of keeping them inside your head. If none of these methods work, then a doctor should be consulted.
Sleep is a Necessity, Not a Luxury
Sleep is a function for most life forms for a reason, and it’s necessary to get our sleep and rest in order to be our best selves and function at our best level. The stability and advantages of sleep are unmatched and there is no replacement for them or for our need to sleep. Our memories, cognition, and health all depend on this one biological factor; therefore, we need to maintain our sleep habits in order to not only preserve our sanity, but help us achieve everything that we find essential in our life.