5 Mind-Blowing Facts About Sleep
Sleep. You need it. It’s critical for your health. And I’d bet you aren’t getting nearly enough.
Whether it’s due to a bad mattress, noisy neighbors, a baby, a clingy pet, a demanding career or whatever the cause, lack of sleep can have very serious consequences.
The National Geographic Channel recently outlined the grave danger you may be putting yourself and those around you in by not getting enough sleep. Don’t believe me? Check out this trailer for their documentary Sleepless in America.
In the meantime, here are some fascinating facts that may help you understand sleep a little better.
We spend around a third of our lives sleeping. And yet, no one really knows why we do it.[i] We know that sleep is essential for us to survive. It may seem obvious but we don’t know exactly why we need to sleep.
We do have theories.[ii]
The Adaptive Theory and Energy Conservation Theory
Jerome Siegel, professor of psychiatry at UCLA and director of the Center for Sleep research believes we sleep to increase our efficiency and to minimize risks. Siegel talks about the big brown bat that sleeps 20 hours a day. He explains that because these nocturnal creatures feed on mosquitoes and moths that only come out at dusk, they can conserve energy by sleeping the rest of the day. They also avoid predators during the day time when birds with excellent daytime eye sight can easily hunt them. Sleeping for 20 hours makes the big brown bat efficient (energy conservation) and helps it avoid risks (adaptive).[iii]
The Restorative Theory
According to the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School, sleep provides the body with a chance to self-repair and to recharge. “Muscle growth, tissue repair, protein synthesis, and growth hormone release occur mostly, or in some cases only, during sleep.”[iv]
To fully appreciate the restorative effects of sleep, we can look at what lack of sleep can lead to. Sleep deprivation has been shown to:[v]
- Hinder wound-healing
- Weaken the immune system
- Increase cancer risks (sleep deprivation is now considered a carcinogen)[vi]
A study funded by the NIH shows that the brain flushes toxins while we are sleeping. The spaces between brain cells increase during sleep making it easier for fluids that remove toxins to pass through quickly.[vii]
Information Consolidation Theory
We acquire tons of information during our waking hours. According to the Information Consolidation theory of sleep, our brain sorts all this information during sleep. Some are ”erased” and some are committed to long-term memory. According to this theory, sleep also readies the brain for the following day.
These are all theories but they do help us understand sleep a little better. “Sleep plays a major role in preparing the body and brain for an alert, productive, psychologically and physiologically healthy tomorrow,” according to the book Power Sleep by Dr. James B. Maas.
So, although we don’t really know for sure why we sleep, we have a pretty good idea of what goes on during sleep and how it affects our body.
Not getting enough sleep can result in fatal accidents. It can also make our immune systems weaker thereby making us susceptible to disease.
But excluding accidents and diseases caused by sleep deprivation, no one has been found to die of sleep deprivation per se.[viii] We don’t know how long we can survive without sleeping. It’s because no human has been documented to go on without sleep for extended periods (think years without sleep).
We all eventually have to give in and get some sleep. Those who say they can go on for years without sleep actually do get some micro sleep.
The exceptions are those with the rare disease called fatal familial insomnia. People diagnosed with FFI actually can’t sleep – even micro sleep. They survive for about 18 months from the onset of the disease.[ix] However, they die because of organ failure, not because of lack of sleep.
In 2010, a study conducted at Harvard University showed that napping for 90 minutes significantly improves performance.[x] In the study, a group of 99 students were asked to solve a complex puzzle. After an hour of training, half of the group was allowed to sleep for 90 minutes. The rest were told to relax or read.
Results showed that those who dreamed during the 90-minute nap considerably improved their performance when they were allowed to work on the puzzle again. The dreams didn’t really depict solutions to the puzzle. The researchers believe that dreaming has an important role in reorganizing and consolidating memory.
Even shorter naps (6 to 45 minutes) can be helpful in improving performance. A couple of naps won’t make you smarter or guarantee that you’ll solve a difficult puzzle. Sorry. But naps may help you perform better.
You might think you’re a good sleeper if you immediately fall asleep as soon as you lie down. However, the truth is that quickly going to sleep is a sign that you’re not getting enough Zs.
Sleep deprivation is considered to be a public health epidemic.[xi] In fact, 50 to 70 million Americans have sleep or wakefulness disorders.
If you experience 3 or more of the following symptoms, you are probably sleep-deprived.[xii]
- You find it difficult to handle stress
- You have poor memory
- It’s hard to concentrate
- You can’t control your food cravings
- You can’t see straight
- You make more bad decisions
- You feel intoxicated even if you’re sober
- Your love-life is suffering
- You’re getting sick more often
- Your emotions are out of control
Why count sheep instead of, say, unicorns? It seems that the task is so uninteresting it will bore you to sleep. But is it true? Believe it or not some scientists at Oxford University actually endeavored to find the answer. They even published their findings in Behavior Research and Therapy.[xiii]
The researchers learned that counting sheep didn’t really make a difference. You’ll take the same amount of time to sleep whether you counted sheep or not. What did help was visualizing a relaxing scene such as a lying on the beach with a piña colada in hand.
Most of us, the scientists concluded, can’t concentrate on counting sheep. It’s just too boring. A relaxing scene is something we can sustain thinking of. Insomniacs, on the other hand, think about a lot of different worrisome things.
We still don’t understand exactly why we need to sleep. What we do know is depriving ourselves of sleep can be dangerous to ourselves and to those around us. It’s not always possible to get ample sleep due the demands of modern life. However, getting enough quality sleep can actually help us do our jobs better.
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[nextpage title=”Useful References:”]
[i]Why do we Sleep? Scientists are Still Trying to Find Out, David Braun, National Geographic, Published August 2009, Retrieved December 8, 2014.
[ii] The Mystery of Sleep, Sarah Klein, Huffington Post, Published October 10, 2013, Retrieved December 8, 2014.
[iii] New Theory Questions Why We Sleep, Charles Q. Choi, Live Science, Published August 25, 2009, Retrieved December 8, 2014.
[iv] Why Do We Sleep Anyway, Division of Sleep Medicine, Harvard Medical School, Last Reviewed December 18, 2007, Retrieved December 8, 2014.
[v] Sleep, Wikipedia, Retreived December 8, 2014.
[vi]Graveyard shift linked to cancer risk, Associated Press, Published November 29, 2007, Retrieved December 8, 2014.
[vii] Brain may flush out toxins during sleep, National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, Published October 17, 2013, Retrieved December 8, 2014.
[viii] How long can humans stay awake?, J. Christian Gillin, Scientific American, Published March 25, 2002, Retrieved December 8, 2014.
[ix] Fatal familial insomnia, Wikipedia, Retrieved December 8, 2014.
[x] Learning while you sleep: Dream or reality?, Harvard Health Publications, Published February 2012, Retrieved December 8, 2014.
[xi] Insufficient Sleep Is a Public Health Epidemic, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Published January 13, 2014, Retrieved December 8, 2014.
[xii] 10 Signs You May Be Sleep Deprived, Tom Scheve, How Stuff Works, Retrieved December 8, 2014.
[xiii] The Claim: Counting Sheep Helps You Fall Asleep, Anahad O’Connor, The New York Times, Published February 15, 2010, Retrieved December 8, 2014.