A sucker for learning new things, I recently took a university level course on the science of sleep. I came away fully committed to changing my poor sleeping habits for the better. As a former student, then in a job that had me up every morning at six o’clock, and finally as entrepreneur working 80+ hour weeks – good sleep wasn’t always a priority, or even an option much of the time. Like many of us, I figured I’d catch up on the weekends, or the oldie but goodie “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” Well, it seems regular and proper sleep is very important for several reasons that have a major impact on our physical, mental and cognitive well-being, both in the short and long-term.
The benefits of a good sleep (and dangers of a lack thereof)
The human brain is a hyperactive and hungry little blob in our heads, requiring an average 20% of our oxygen and caloric intake despite being just 2% of our body weight. All this activity require billions of tiny chemical and electrical processes to occur, but these processes can’t go on forever. They need a sleep state to so they can be reset on the molecular level and freshly put in a new day of moving, thinking, remembering, learning, etc.
We discover during sleep deprivation, in labs or in real life, that our hormones start to go awry, blood pressure rises, metabolism and immune systems stop working properly, body temperature drops, ability to learn and remember is comprised and subjects experience hallucinations and symptoms associated with schizophrenia. In rats, continued sleep deprivation always leads to death within a few weeks, and we should expect the same in humans.
Here are a few important things that go on when we sleep:
1) The Body Literally Gets A Rest
While sleeping, we use less energy, heart rate and blood pressure drop, and our body systems shift into an anabolic state, meaning they are able to better create essential molecules to restore themselves, and us, into healthier conditions. Denied sleep, these systems all slowly break down.
2) Memory Consolidation
Our brains are incredibly active when we sleep, and different stages of sleep seem be connected to different types of memory processing. Deep sleep, which usually happens earlier in the night, is important in helping to sort, even lock in, memory of knowledge and facts. Keep this in mind when studying for a test or presentation: review your material before bedtime and then get a good sleep.
Deep sleep is also when recent experiences and memories appear to be turned into long-term memories.
The sleep cycle known as REM sleep, or dream sleep, which happens later in your sleep, is connected to procedural memory for physical activities, for example mastering a dance routine or playing an instrument.
3) Boosting Your Immune System
One of the most noticeable effects of little or poor sleep is a greater susceptibility to disease, be it viral or bacterial infections and even heart disease or cancer. Getting a proper sleep, usually around 7-8 hours for most people, gives your immune system the necessary physical states required to regenerate its army of cells and the conditions to go out and conquer and repair our bodies on the cellular level. It’s a war in there, and you need to continually boost your team’s strength if you want to win it!
4) Balanced Hormones Are A Key To Health And Happiness
Regular sleep is crucial for maintaining healthy hormone balances in our brains and bodies. What do hormones do for us? Hormones are the chemical messaging system through our bloodstream that coordinate all sorts of important processes, ranging from metabolism, energy levels, stress responses, sexual functions, and hundreds more, including the regulation of sleep itself. Mess with natural sleep human cycles that have evolved over millions of years and you’re directly messing with your hormonal balances and all different types of things can start to go wrong. Obesity, sexual dysfunction, stress and depression all can have causes related to poor sleep habits and negative effects on hormones. One crucial hormone that you want to coax out as much as possible through good sleep is human growth hormone or HGH. It’s the hormone often called the fountain of youth hormone as it is associated with increased body repair, muscle increase and body fat reduction among adults, along with improved cognitive function and emotional health. Human growth hormone is particularly released during your deep sleep phase and poor sleep can significantly limit the regular dose you get naturally.
You can take control of your sleep
It may not be easy at first but committing to a regular and consistent schedule of bed times and wake times will actually get easier as your brain actually wants to be on a predictable 24 hour cycle. Constantly changing your sleep and wake times has the same effect as being in constant time zone jet lag, not healthy. Get yourself into a cozy, dark, quiet room with no distractions (think cellphones!) and treat your mind and body to the good sleep you deserve. You’ll be healthier, happier, more productive and you’re likely live a good deal longer than you would have otherwise.
Fun sleep fact: Sleep isn’t just for the more advanced members of the animal kingdom. Amphibians, fish, insects all require sleep to thrive, and apparently lacking a brain doesn’t make a difference as even jellyfish experience a sleep phase!