I will state categorically that sleep is not just important, it is essential. As necessary for survival as is breathing, eating and drinking fluids. Biologists describe sleep as a Primary Biological Need. That is to say, without it, we would die. A human can go weeks without food, days without water, but less than 72-hours without sleep can cause significant, even long-term damage.
We humans spend one third of our lives, asleep. One must conclude that sleep then is a necessary part of our lives. If Nature or God provided a function that we perform for such a significant portion of our lives, we can safely assume then that it is probably pretty important. But why is it so?
Sleep provides a time for our body and mind to perform very important biological processes that facilitate strengthening and restoration of important functions. Functions that include synthesis of hormones, growth and repair of muscles, consolidation and transfer of memories from short term memory areas where memories are first experienced to areas of storage of long-term memories, these processes occur only while we sleep.
Sleep also allows the brain to dispose of waste products accumulated during our waking hours. Essentially, it is our body’s daily pit-stop in order to change, repair and rejuvenate.
Short-term sleep deprivation leads to irritability, mood changes and significantly effects memory and our decision-making skills. It does so by negatively effecting neural connections within our brain. Long-term sleep deprivation can, in extreme cases, even lead to death. Depriving ourselves of sleep, exposes the brain to potential damage including a potential for permanent brain cell loss. The only way to prevent this is proper, deep, regenerative sleep.
How much sleep a person needs varies from individual to individual. However, studies have shown that most people need varying amount so sleep depending on their activity levels and age. A newborn baby, whose body and brain are still in development, need a whopping 14-17 hours per day. Older adults over 65 years of age need between 6.5 and 8 hours per night, on average. Our still developing adolescents, with their ever-changing hormones and prefrontal cortex development, need 8-10 hours of sleep per day. For the average working age adult, between 7-9 hours is considered healthy.
In modern society, filled with the demands of daily life and increased stress, it is difficult for many to maintain good sleeping habits. Not only does a lack of sleep effect our daily performance, it is toxic to the brain over the long-term. Like any system that works on fuel, waste products are produced that must be purged. In the brain, the accumulation of waste products such as Beta-amyloids and Tau Proteins negatively affect our cognitive function and, studies have shown, may lead to increased risk of dementia as we age.
The CDC (Center for Disease Control) has declared insufficient sleep as a serious “Public Health Problem”. People who sleep poorly die younger, are more fatigued, suffer from depression and anxiety more frequently, have a higher incidence of hypertension, obesity and diabetes, have more car accidents, make more mistakes at work, have more difficulty learning, have more infections and are more irritable.
These sleep deprived people cause more accidents in the work place and on our roads. Driving or operating equipment while overly tired is considered just as dangerous as drinking and driving. The health, psychological and economic consequences of a sleep deprived society are immense, driving up health care cost, productivity, labor costs and human suffering.
Together with exercise and good nutrition, sleep is a bedrock of a healthy life. Being personally responsible for our own good sleep is one of the best investments we can make toward our health, productivity and longevity.
What is healthy sleep? Essentially, periods of long, deep, uninterrupted slumber. To help us get that, it helps to follow some of these proven rules for good sleep.
- Maintain a good sleep schedule that allows you to sleep at least 7 hours per night.
- Do your best to go to bed and to wake up at the same times every day. (including weekends)
- Use your bed only for sleep and sex.
- Make your room comfortable and relaxing
- Avoid bright lights for at least 30 minutes before sleep
- No electronics for at least 30 minutes before sleep
- Avoid large meals before bed
- Avoid alcohol before bedtime
- Don’t get into bed until you are sleepy
- If you are not asleep after 20 minutes of getting to bed, get out of bed
- Avoid large amounts of liquids before bedtime
The above tips, collectively known as “Sleep Hygiene,” are key to providing a good, restful and regenerative night’s sleep. Even military units such as the SEALs and Delta Force prioritize sleep for their elite operators, issuing sleep monitors for each and every commando. It is important that we all take sleep as seriously as our waking hours to ensure health, vitality, and longevity.
If you have problems with sleep despite your efforts to maintain sleep hygiene, talk to your family doctor for a sleep assessment. Remember, if you neglect your sleep, you neglect your whole self.