We spend approximately one-third of our time sleeping, and the quality of the rest we get can impact every aspect of our lives. It’s remarkable in this age of advanced science and technology that humans haven’t yet found a way to manage without their nightly slumber. Rather, we’ve gone in the opposite direction and recognized that sleep is a vital activity mankind can’t do without, as anyone who has searched for insomnia treatment can verify. But why exactly is sleep so essential for survival? What happens during those hours each night, and what is likely to happen if you don’t get them?
Why You Need to Sleep
It’s a myth that our brains shut down when we sleep. On the contrary, the human mind is very much awake during rest, carrying out a lot of important processing, restoration and strengthening. One of sleep’s most important functions is to transfer information from short-term memory to long-term. Researchers call this process “consolidation,” and the evidence can be seen in our increased ability to remember things better after getting some restful sleep.
From the physical viewpoint, sleep is the time when your body rejuvenates and repairs tissues, grows muscle and synthesizes hormones that slow down your breathing and relaxes your muscles. Blood pressure drops, and your heart gets a chance to take a break. This helps to reduce any inflammation and promote the healing of wounds, allows the immune system to fight harmful opponents. You use fewer calories for energy, which rebuilds your supply for when you wake up.
How Sleep Works
When you go to bed, you go through several different stages of sleep. In the changeover period between being awake and falling asleep you generally have non-REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, which is light and easily disturbed. This lasts only a few minutes while your body and brain slow down and cool down from the day. This is a cleansing stage, in which your brain clears itself of toxic byproducts that collect during the day.
Stage two is also non-REM sleep, and it constitutes the light sleep you experience before you enter deeper sleep. Your heartbeat and breathing slow down, and your muscles relax even more. The temperature of your body drops and any eye movements stop. Your brain wave activity slows down, but still shows short bursts of activity. You spend more of your nightly sleep cycles in stage two sleep than in other.
Within about 90 minutes of falling asleep you should enter REM sleep. This is when most of your dreaming happens, and your brain wave activity starts to resemble the way it looks when you’re awake. Your heart rate and blood pressure rise to levels similar to when you’re awake, and your arms and legs are temporarily paralyzed to prevent you from getting up and moving around. As you get older, you spend more time in non-REM sleep than REM, which is why your memory ability reduces with age.
Stage three is also non-REM sleep, which happens in longer stretches during the first half of the night. Your heart rate and breathing are at their lowest levels, the muscles are relaxed, and your brain waves slow down noticeably. This is the stage that gives you the deep sleep you need to feel refreshed when you wake up.
What Happens If You Don’t Get Enough Good Quality Sleep
People who don’t get enough sleep have a higher risk of developing diseases such as cancer or diabetes, as well as having accidents with equipment, machinery and cars. Approximately 1 in 3 American adults don’t get enough sleep, according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM). Results of this include:
- Getting sick, because your ability to fight off pathogens is impaired. Patients who don’t get enough sleep or undertake insomnia treatment have higher rates of breast cancer, colorectal cancer and prostate cancer.
- Studies show less than 5 hours sleep per night or more than 9 can both negatively impact heart health, increasing your risk of developing high blood pressure, coronary heart disease or stroke.
- Cognitive issues, such as memory problems, difficulty making decisions, reasoning, problem-solving, reaction time and alertness.
- Lower testosterone levels in men and loss of libido.
- Higher risk of obesity and diabetes.
- Poor skin condition.
Just ask anyone diagnosed and treated for sleep apnea how they felt once they began treatment, and you’ll realize the havoc a lack of good quality sleep can play on your mind and body.
How To Improve Your Sleep
You can improve your ability to sleep deeply and restfully with a number of insomnia treatment strategies. The first is obviously to be proactive about your health and schedule a physician examination and rule out any actual medical conditions. Next, stop taking daytime naps, especially after 2 pm in the day. Often, the best insomnia treatment is simply to ensure you’re tired enough to fall asleep easily. Reduce your intake of caffeine, and eliminate any after 4 pm.
Increase your exposure to bright light during the daytime, which helps to maintain the Circadian rhythm that tells your body when it’s time to sleep. This has reduced by 83% the time it took people with insomnia to fall asleep. Maintain a regular sleep schedule, so your body gets used to sleeping and waking at the same time each day.
Optimize your sleep environment by creating a cool, quiet and dark bedroom, reducing external noise and interference from electronic devices, TVs or digital clocks. Take a relaxing bath or shower before bedtime, and avoid eating late in the evening. Make sure the bed is comfortable for you, and try one of the many sleeping apps available to prevent your mind from being too active.