Many of us know that sleep is imperative. When we sleep for less than 6 hours a night, it is a common feeling to be drowsy, easily irritated and generally very tired. However, in recent years, there have been many more studies completed on the importance of sleep, not only to function well on a daily basis, but to maintain proper health. Around the world, many don’t properly understand the importance of sleep to maintain a healthy lifestyle, not just on a surface level, but to reduce the chances of conditions including Alzheimers and even cancer. In this article, I will be discussing the mechanisms of sleep in the body, the effect of insufficient sleep on our bodily functions and how we can establish proper and healthy sleeping habits.
I recently read “Why we sleep” by Matthew Walker, which was a true eye opener to me. I, like many, knew how important sleep is, but never understood the true mechanisms of sleep in the body and the consequences of improper and insufficient sleep. Sleep, from a biological perspective, was developed for evolutionary purposes. However, from a logical standpoint, sleep does not make sense for species. When you sleep, you waste time that could be used to hunt for food and you’re more likely to be attacked by a predator. Nevertheless, sleep continues to play a crucial role in the lives of all animals which live more than 4 days. All animals have something called a circadian rhythm, which is essentially a body-sleep clock. The circadian rhythm tells animals when to sleep and how long to sleep. This is why, when we travel to different places, we experience something called jet lag. Our circadian rhythm is forced to adapt to a different timezone in which the times of day and night, light and dark differ. Everyone’s circadian rhythm is unique (chronotype) and thus, the phenomenon of “Early bird” and “night owl” is actually scientifically accurate. Overall, the circadian rhythm acts like a real metronome, continuing exactly the same everyday. This is why it is essential that we follow our circadian rhythm, giving into cues which make us feel sleepy and this is a biological signal that we need to rest and energise ourselves - done by melatonin and the suprachiasmatic (the brain sleep clock).
Now that we understand how sleep works, it is important to understand the biological effects of good (and bad) sleep on the body. Firstly, sleep is essential for the development of organs around the body. In children, in particular, sleep ensures that the brain is able to develop properly and that memories and things learned throughout the day are stored and processed properly. Bad sleep, or the lack of sleep, in early childhood can cause children to lack learning abilities later in life. Additionally, sleep is essential for maintaining our mental health, as we are able to give our brain a rest and process our feelings. It has been proven that people who sleep properly suffer less from conditions such as depression and anxiety. Something which is also less known is that sleep affects our metabolism, as when we sleep our body spends a lot of energy processing and digesting food. This is why a higher rate of obesity is seen in people who do not sleep enough.
All these consequences of bad sleep can cause us to worry about the amount of sleep we are getting. However, there are a few simple sets which can drastically improve the quality of our sleep and thus the quality of our health. Firstly, create a sleep schedule and stick to it. When your body gets used to sleeping and waking up at a certain time, signals in our body such as the release of melatonin happen more regularly. Additionally, try to remove electronic devices from your sleeping area and do not spend time on devices at least half an hour before your bedtime. The light from the devices can cause confusion in sleep signals and cause the quality of sleep to decline as well. Lastly, try to incorporate exercise into your daily routine, as it helps you literally become more tired and the quality of your REM sleep also improves, which is the most important type of sleep where you gain the most rest.