The Benefits of Sleep

Ah, Sleep!  Quite possibly one of my all time favourite things in the world (which probably won’t come as any surprise!).  But like many of my favourite things, it’s still pretty baffling (and not just to me!).  I mean, when you think about our ancestors, how was it a good idea for them to be laid prone in the same position without having a clue what was going on for a third of their day?…when it’s dark no less!  When you think about it, it’s pretty clever that we managed to evolve at all really, isn’t it!

But, just as Darwin pointed out, survival of the fittest and all that, we wouldn’t have kept on doing it if it didn’t serve some kind of purpose.  After all, it could have turned out differently with those who slept for less time ‘defeating’ the ones who needed more sleep simply because they didn’t get eaten by whatever nastiness was around at the time (worryingly, if I lived then I probably would have been eaten by a sabre toothed tiger or something).

Even those clever bods in white coats (aka researchers and scientists) can’t tell us precisely why we sleep.  However, what research CAN tell us is that getting enough sleep is good for us for multiple reasons, including a few you may not already know!

Learning

I think we’ve all had days where we’ve struggled to concentrate because we’ve not had as much sleep as we would have liked the night before?  But that’s actually not the whole story.  It runs a lot deeper than that. Learning and memory are divided into three functions. Acquisition, consolidation, and recall.  So not only do you need to take the information in, you need to commit it to memory and (probably most importantly) store it in such a way that you can retrieve it when you need it most (including at the Pub Quiz on a Sunday night!).

Actually learning and recall happen when we’re awake, but consolidating the information happens when we’re asleep, specifically during dream sleep, although the other stages of sleep also play their part.

So even if you feel you’ve managed to take the information in (perhaps with the help of copious amounts of caffeine), without the glories of a good night’s sleep, it’s likely to be nearly impossible to actually retrieve that gem of information when you need it.

Obviously, learning is particularly important for children, right up until their late teens and early twenties, but that doesn’t mean that even as adults we’re not still learning new things every day!

Mood

This is probably another fairly obvious one, after all, I think we all know our mood probably isn’t as good as it could be when we’re tired.  Interestingly, a study from the University of Pennsylvania showed that subjects who had their sleep restricted to just under 5 hours a night for a week really felt the pain emotionally, although the good news was that just two full night’s sleep helped get them back on track. 

OK, so that’s probably not ground-breaking news for any of us.  But why does it affect us like that?  Well, the jury’s still out, but it’’s thought it’s probably something to do (not surprisingly) with the part of the brain that is responsible for our emotions and behaviour, our limbic system, specifically the amygdala, which is the part of the brain that controls anger and fear.  So if the amygdala isn’t soothed by slumber, then we’re more likely to be a slightly angier versions of our normal amenable selves.

Health

OK, so we now know that sleep plays an important part in our ability to learn as well as our mood, but what about our health in general?  This, my friend, is the crux of it all!  While we all know how important eating right and exercising is good for our general health, many of us ignore (intentionally or not) the major benefits of sleep on our health. 

Getting enough sleep, whatever our age, gives our bodies as well as our brains the chance to regenerate and recuperate. People who regularly get between 7-9 hours of sleep see significantly lower rates of obesity, high blood pressure, stroke, infections, depression, diabetes, inflammation, hypertension, heart disease, heart attacks, and heart failure. They also report higher satisfaction with their sex lives, better performance at work, and take fewer sick days than people who typically sleep less than 7 hours a night.

Immune System

Yup, you’ve guessed it, getting enough sleep also helps us fight infections too! Proteins called cytokines not only help fight infection, but are also thought to help promote sleep too.  But when we haven’t had enough shut-eye, this production decreases as does our antibody production.

Weight Loss

If you’re struggling to shift a few kilos as well as struggling with your sleep, that’s not a coincidence!  Yup, sleep (or rather sleep deprivation) plays havoc with the hormones that tell us when we’re full (leptin) and when we’re hungry (ghrelin).  The less sleep we get, the more ghrelin we have surging through our bodies, making us want to eat.  And because our leptin levels are also lower, we go ahead and munch, probably on things that aren’t as healthy as they could be.  Don’t worry, I’ll be writing another blog specifically on this soon!  

So, we’ve gathered that getting 7 – 9 hours of sleep a night for us adults will help us be the svelte, charismatic individual we want to be (or something close to it anyway).  But what about kids? Well, actually, it’s just as important for them!  For all the reasons I mentioned above.

But the thing is, talking about sleep (or lack of it) is still a bit of a taboo subject.  Whether it’s our own or our child’s, sometimes we just feel like we need to just accept it, but that’s really not the case.  For all the reasons above, and many, many more, it’s absolutely worth making sure that you and everyone in your house is getting enough sleep.  If only you knew someone who could help you with that…

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