Why do we sleep?


Copyright RelaxingMusic (Creative Commons)

Have you ever wondered why you sleep?  Or why you need more or less sleep than those around you?  The concept that you need eight hours of sleep is, well, inherently faulty.  Everyone is different.  Everyone needs a different amount of sleep.  As a general rule when you are going through huge transitions in your life (physical – being a teenager, or mental – getting married) then you are going to need more sleep.  But beyond that, a stipulation that you need a certain amount of sleep just doesn’t work.

So, what is sleep?  Why do we sleep?  I know that I feel much better when I’ve had “enough” sleep (which for me right now is around 7 – 7.5 hours) but, so what?

The whole reason around why people sleep is still, to be honest, an unknown.  Oh, sure, there are guesses as to why we sleep, but all we really know at the moment are the impacts of enough sleep and not enough sleep.

Enough Sleep.  If you have enough sleep studies show that you seem to heal better/faster than when you are tired.  Your immune system function better and you are less susceptible to colds, flus and other minor ailments.  People who get enough sleep seem to have an adjusted metabolism so that it is more difficult for them to gain weight.  Indeed grabbing a power nap in the middle of the day seems to help with remembering things, particularly non-related items.

Indeed, if you need to remember something, grab a nap, not a coffee, at least that is a study done for the National Institute of Health in the U.S. concluded.  Studies have shown that a 10 minute nap seems to be optimal if you are trying to recover from a sleep deprived night.  But if you need some serious extra juice for an exam or something like that, then you need some REM sleep, but that takes some serious time to get set up, so, when in doubt, grab a 10 minute nap.

Not Enough Sleep.  For the most part, kind of the opposite of enough sleep:  higher propensity for obesity, depression, diabetes, lack of energy, grogginess, short term memory lapses.  After a while, we start to hallucinate.   Truckers have a term – “seeing the black dog” – that talks about how if you see a black dog on the road, it’s time to pull over and take a nap.

Sleep deprivation also causes stress hormones to increase.  Adrenaline flows through the system and cortisol increases, your blood pressure rises, and you generally go a little bit “off”.  Fatal Familial Insomnia is a genetic issue that can cause people to start suffering worse and worse bouts of insomnia which, unfortunately, inevitably lead to hallucinations, delusions and death.  Yes, not enough sleep leads to death.

The longest time to stay awake?  The current documented record is 11 days 24 minutes.   Randy Gardner was a 17 year old student at the time.

But throughout all of the studies, all of the experiments that have occurred, they still haven’t really come across the reasons why we sleep and more importantly why sleeping actually helps.  I mean, the brain is still functioning, so why does sleeping help?  Are we mentally defragging our hard drive?

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