The Importance of Sleep

Sleep is arguably the most important behavioural experience that we have. On average we spend about 36% of our lives asleep. That's 32 years of a 90 year life spent sleeping!*

It varies from place to place but generally sleep is not placed very high up on the list of life's priorities. There is a culture and feeling that whilst we are asleep we are missing out on all the wonderful things of life. Many even quote the phrase 'I'll have plenty of time to sleep when I'm dead!' If we are sleeping we are not eating, we are not drinking, we are not watching the football or in the gym, not making money (although some are, I guess they'll sleep well) we are not on Facebook, Twitter or engaging in relationships (having sex). We are disconnected from the world. So as we are missing out on all this 'stuff' the tendency is to grab a bit of sleep as needed and get on with all the other bits.

As you can imagine this is NOT GOOD. Sleep IS important, incredibly important and complicated! But why do we do it? The brain doesn't ever shut down, even whilst asleep, and it could be argued is sometimes more active during sleep.

*Intuitive restoration - R&R. We intuitively know when we need to rest and repair. Ultimately we can't avoid it without consequence. There are genes associated with restoration and metabolic pathways that are turned on during sleep.

*Brain processing and memory consolidation
The ability to learn a task, to process and remember things, greatly diminishes with lack of sleep. 
This obviously includes the laying down of memory and recalling it by making neural connections.
With sleep we are more able to come up with novel solutions to complex problems. Those new important neurosynaptic connections are strengthened whereas the less important ones fade away.

Sleep is not an indulgence! It is a necessity and we as a society are sleep deprived. This means more than just being tired throughout our day.
- Teenagers need 9 hours per night for full brain performance
- The ability to sleep in a single block diminishes with the aged, but the required amount of sleep does not. So although more fragmented, the elderly still need just as much sleep.
- The body clock does not change with night shift work which means the quality of sleep is often poor as the body thinks it should be awake when you need to sleep.

And so, some of the effects of sleep deprivation are:

The brain indulges in micro sleeps if it needs it. Which means an increased risk of accidents. Hence falling asleep at the wheel through sleep deprivation and RTA's through tiredness, poor vigilance and poor judgement and reduced responsiveness.

Weight gain.
If your sleep is reduced by 5 hours per night there is a 50% chance of becoming obese. Sleep deprivation gives rise to the hunger hormone ghrelin. The brain says 'I need carbs' and sugars to stay awake and therefore one is more likely to eat things that will increase fat stores.

Tired people are stressed people. One of the effects of which is memory loss. The problems arise when there is sustained stress associated with sleep loss. This can lead to suppressed immunity, increasing tired peoples overall risk of infection. Increased stress often means glucose becomes a dominant part of the vasculature predisposing people to glucose intolerance and therefore diabetes type II.
Increases Cardiovascular disease as a result of increased blood pressure. It is commonly known that stress is a broad term and it's multifaceted contributors can lead to systemic diseases such as cancers.

Reduced productivity
Whether at work or otherwise, productivity can be reduced with sleep deprivation in many ways. Forgetfulness, poor creativity, poor memory, increased impulsiveness and poor concentration.

Tired brains crave stimulants. Junk food, caffeine, nicotine and various drugs. In whatever form, it must be remembered that there is no replacement for sleep. This often has health implications and as any stimulant wears off, it is usually followed by a low period. In turn when one is wired due to stimulants and then needs to sleep there is often a tendency to turn to things such as alcohol, which does not induce sleep! Alcohol sedates you. This means that the neural processes that occur during proper sleep.. Restoration, repair, memory and recall.. are harmed. Alcoholism also affects cerebellar brain function - cognition, gait, ataxia, speech and vision to name some. I could write a whole blog on alcoholism.

Are you getting enough sleep?

Do you:
Need an alarm clock to get up?
Feel grumpy and groggy in the mornings?
Take a long time to stir?
Need stimulants. Caffeine etc to get you going and/or keep you going?
Look and feel tired and irritable?

If your answers to the above are yes, then it is likely that you are sleep deprived. Research shows that Mental illness and sleep are physically linked within the brain. Those neural connections that cause normal sleep cross over with those that cause mental illness. Evidence shows that genes that cause normal sleep, when mutated predispose people to mental illness. A gene linked to pschitophrenia when mutated also smashes sleep which is evidence of a link. Sleep disruption is always present in severe mental illness.

So how can we sleep better?
Understand the importance of sleep and push it up your list of priorities.
Realise that it will make the moments that you are awake more productive, creative, efficient, safe and enjoyable.
Regulate your sleep. Aim to go to bed at the same time each night and wake up at the same time the following day. You'll soon find that your body clock knows this pattern and you'll wake feeling rested and energised without the need for an alarm.
Avoid having caffeine too late in the day.
Wind down before bed and reduce brain stimulation/activity such as light exposure, computers, mobile phones, television and loud noise.
Make your place of rest as comfortable, dark and snug as possible - a sleep haven.
Seek out morning light. Light exposure in the morning is good to help set the biological clock to the light / dark cycle.

We are extremely well designed intuitive human beings. The body has its own medicine chest containing all it needs for healing and homeostasis. Sleep is one of these mechanisms. Embrace and enjoy it, you will  without a doubt feel the benefits.

*Adapted from Russell Foster - The neuroscience of sleep.