The Importance of Sleep

Where sleep is concerned, our household is divided cleanly down the middle. GG and I prefer a decent bedtime while BB and S can go on for a long time. While GG and I can stay up late, our energies are noticeably depleted and we prefer to sleep early so we are awake early. On the other hand, BB and S can go on past midnight working, playing games or watching television with no difference to their energy and wake up the next day, not as early, but not very late too. BB especially has the best of both worlds according to GG. He can sleep late like S and wake up early, bright as a button the moment he opens his eyes like me.

The past few months, BB and I have been having this ongoing discussion on why he should sleep early, especially if it’s a weekday and so I thought I should share my findings with you. Read on to find out why sleep is so important and that by burning the midnight oil, how we set ourselves up for failure.

A vital, often neglected, component of every person’s overall health and well-being, Sleep is an essential function that allows the body and mind to recharge, leaving one refreshed and alert when they wake up. Sleep is important because it enables the body to repair and be fit and ready for another day. Healthy sleep also helps the body remain healthy and stave off diseases. Without enough sleep, the brain cannot function properly and getting adequate rest may help prevent excess weight gain, heart disease, and increased illness duration which can impair the ability to concentrate, think clearly, and process memories.

An internal body clock regulates one’s sleep cycle, controlling when they feel tired and ready for bed or refreshed and alert. This clock operates on a 24-hour cycle known as the circadian rhythm. After waking up from sleep, one will become increasingly tired throughout the day with the feelings peaking in the evening leading up to bedtime. This sleep drive, also known as sleep-wake homeostasis, may be linked to adenosine, an organic compound produced in the brain. Adenosine levels increase throughout the day as one becomes more tired, and then the body breaks down this compound during sleep.

Light also influences the circadian rhythm. The brain contains a special region of nerve cells known as the hypothalamus, and a cluster of cells in the hypothalamus called the suprachiasmatic nucleus, which processes signals when the eyes are exposed to natural or artificial light. These signals help the brain determine whether it is day or night. As natural light disappears in the evening, the body will release melatonin, a hormone that induces drowsiness. When the sun rises in the morning, the body will release the hormone known as cortisol that promotes energy and alertness.

Once a person falls asleep, the bodies follow a sleep cycle divided into four stages. The first three stages are known as non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep, and the final stage is known as rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. The first stage marks the transition between wakefulness and sleep and consists of light sleep. Muscles relax and the heart rate, breathing, and eye movements begin to slow down, as do brain waves, which are more active when one is awake. Stage 1 typically lasts several minutes. The second NREM sleep stage is characterised by deeper sleep as the heart rate and breathing rates continue slowing down and the muscles become more relaxed. Eye movements will cease and the body temperature will decrease. Apart from some brief moments of higher frequency electrical activity, brain waves also remain slow. Stage 2 is typically the longest of the four sleep stages. The third stage of NREM plays an important role in making one feel refreshed and alert the next day. Heartbeat, breathing, and brain wave activity all reach their lowest levels, and the muscles are as relaxed as they will be. This stage will be longer at first and decrease in duration throughout the night. The first REM stage will occur about 90 minutes after one falls asleep. As the name suggests, the eyes will move back and forth rather quickly under the eyelids. Breathing rate, heart rate, and blood pressure will begin to increase. Dreaming will typically occur during REM sleep, and the arms and legs will become paralysed, it’s believed this is intended to prevent one from physically acting out on their dreams. The duration of each REM sleep cycle increases as the night progresses with numerous studies that have also linked REM sleep to memory consolidation, the process of converting recently learned experiences into long-term memories. The duration of the REM stage will decrease as one ages, causing one to spend more time in the NREM stages.

These four stages will repeat cyclically throughout the night until one wakes up. For most people, the duration of each cycle will last between 90 to 120 minutes and NREM sleep constitutes about 75% to 80% of each cycle. One may also wake up briefly during the night but not remember the next day and these episodes are known as W stages.

For most adults, at least seven hours of sleep each night is needed for proper cognitive and behavioural functions with children and teenagers needing substantially more sleep, particularly if they are younger than five years of age. An insufficient amount of sleep can lead to serious repercussions. Some studies have shown sleep deprivation leaves people vulnerable to attention lapses, reduced cognition, delayed reactions, and mood shifts. It has also been suggested that people can develop a sort of tolerance to chronic sleep deprivation. Even though their brains and bodies struggle due to lack of sleep, they may not be aware of their deficiencies because less sleep feels normal to them. Additionally, lack of sleep has been linked to a higher risk for certain diseases and medical conditions including obesity, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, poor mental health, and early death.

Sleep needs vary from person to person, depending on their age. As a person ages, they typically require less sleep to function properly. According to the CDC, newborns until three months of age need 14 to 17 hours of sleep, infants between 2 to 12 months need 12 to 16 hours and toddlers from one to two need 11 to 14 hours of sleep. Preschool children between 3 to 5 need 10 to 13 hours while children between 6 to 12 years old need around 9 to 12 hours of sleep a day. Teens between 13 and 18 need to clock in 8 to 10 hours of rest while adults until the age of 60 need to maintain an average of 7 hours of sleep daily. As one grows older, sleep schedules change with adults between 61 and 64 needing 7 to 9 hours and those older than 65 need between 7 to 8 hours of sleep daily.

Work schedules, day-to-day stressors, a disruptive bedroom environment, and medical conditions can all prevent one from receiving enough sleep. A healthy diet and positive lifestyle habits can help ensure an adequate amount of sleep each night, but for some, chronic lack of sleep may be the first sign of a sleep disorder.

As well as the number of hours, the quality of sleep is also important. Signs of poor sleep quality include waking in the middle of the night and not feeling rested after an adequate number of hours of sleep. Some things a person should and should not do to improve sleep quality include the following:

  • Sleep for at least seven hours every day
  • Have a short nap for an energy booster if you need it during the day as a short nap of 10 to 20 minutes can help recharge energy levels and boost daytime productivity.
  • Exercise regularly as physical activity can help sleep better.
  • Relax muscles and release the tension in the body to help sleep better with some simple muscle relaxation exercises.
  • Establish a realistic bedtime and stick to it every night, even on the weekends.
  • Follow a bedtime routine. Grab a book, take a warm bath, or listen to some soothing music. A consistent routine can signal to the body to sleep at the same time daily.
  • Maintain comfortable temperature settings and low light levels in the bedroom.
  • Turn on the phone’s blue light filter. The night mode function filters out blue light, which inhibits the brain from producing sleep-inducing hormones.
  • Exercise during the day; this can help one wind down in the evening and prepare for sleep.
  • Keep the sleep environment comfortable by dimming or switching off the lights in the room or using blackout curtains or eye masks to help block out external light.
  • Refrain from using tobacco at any time of day or night.
  • Avoid sleeping in when one has had enough sleep.
  • Avoid Starving or eating a heavy meal before bedtime. It’s hard to sleep when one’s stomach is rumbling or after a large meal which may cause discomfort. Eat a couple of hours before sleep, or have a glass of milk before heading to bed.
  • Avoid caffeine or alcohol at night. Coffee is a stimulant that promotes wakefulness while alcohol may cause drowsiness and impact the quality of sleep.
  • Avoid Using electronics 30 minutes before bedtime as using such devices before bedtime stimulates the mind, making it harder to fall asleep and stay asleep.

If one thinks sleep is just a period of inactivity, then think again. The nightly shut-eye allows the brains to consolidate our learning and memory so we can perform tasks better the next day. When one has enough sleep, they are less likely to overeat and crave junk, and make wiser food choices. Sleep deprivation makes one unable to concentrate, have slow responses, make decisions impulsively and even felt easily annoyed. So tonight, make sure you sleep at least seven hours (more if you are older or younger) because the quantity and quality of sleep determine whether you wake up feeling energised or like a walking zombie.

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