We all know that sleep is extremely important for the proper functioning of our bodies. If you’re not convinced, a couple of sleepless nights are more than enough to show you just how crucial sleep is for your overall well-being. Even so, most of us are guilty of cheating when it comes to healthy sleep habits.
It’s obvious that sleep is an indispensable part of our lives, considering we spend one-third of our existence sleeping. But although it’s such a vital mechanism, there’s a lot about sleep we still don’t know or understand. The most relevant research on sleep has been conducted in the past 25 years, therefore we’ve learned most of what we know today from recent studies—making sleep a fascinating and fairly new territory to explore for scientists. That means there are many more mysteries about the science of sleep we’ve yet to unravel.
But let’s start with the essentials and try to answer two basic questions: what is sleep and how much sleep do we actually need?
- According to experts, although sleep is usually regarded as a temporary shut-down phase, it’s actually a very active stage when many of the body’s restorative processes occur. It’s not clear why we are programmed to sleep, but what we do know is that sleep is critical for physical and mental health.
- Experts agree that the average person needs 8 hours of sleep per night. But there are exceptions to this rule. Depending on each individual, the ideal amount of sleep varies between five to ten hours per night. Also, as we age, we tend to sleep less, even though there’s not a significant decrease in the amount of sleep we need.
That being said, making sure you get a good night’s sleep is the best investment in your health you could make. There are many things you can do to improve the quality of your sleep right now:
- Stick with a clear sleep schedule
- Increase sunlight exposure in the morning
- Avoid long daytime naps
- Avoid screen time in the evening
- Create a relaxing bedroom environment by minimizing noise and external light
- Look for a mattress for a more comfortable bed
- Try relaxation techniques before bed—take a hot bath or practice mindful breathing
- Don’t drink caffeine
- Exercise regularly during the day
Getting to the fun part, let’s take a look at some of the most interesting facts about sleep and see what scientists have to say about them:
The need to sleep can’t be explained
Although all scientists agree that sleep is indispensable, they still can’t explain why. Evolution doesn’t quite explain why we sleep. Besides spending much of our lives doing nothing, we are extremely vulnerable while we sleep. Some experts believe that sleep helps the brain get rid of all the metabolic waste products gathered during the waking hours, functioning like a reset button that readies us for the next day. Also, it’s believed that sleep helps us retain important information.
Training yourself to sleep less is a myth
As a guideline, adults between 18 and 60 years old should get seven to nine hours of sleep per night. Those who are older can get by with a little less. But it’s also true that there are people who can function properly with a lot less sleep than the average individual. However, if you think you can reach their performance through different techniques, you’ll be disappointed. Sleeping is not a competition and you can’t train yourself to sleep less. In fact, the amount of sleep each of us needs is 80% determined by our genes, and it’s obvious you can’t change your genetic inheritance.
Our brains are active during sleep
The idea that our brains are not active during sleep couldn’t be further from the truth. On the contrary, there are many metabolic processes that happen while we sleep. There are two distinct parts of a sleep cycle: non-REM sleep, which comprises four stages, and REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. The first two sleep stages are fairly light and don’t bring any regenerative benefits. In stages three and four we go into a deep (or slow-wave) sleep. During this time our bodies go through a series of restorative processes. REM sleep usually starts 90 minutes after falling asleep, when our brains become more active and most dreams occur. During REM, our brains process and store information in long-term memory.
Binge sleeping can’t help make up for lost nights
Some people believe they can make up for lost nights by binge sleeping afterward. Students, we’re looking at you! However, studies reveal that it’s impossible to force the brain to “catch up on sleep.” Even if recovery sleep can help you feel more refreshed, it’s been proven that it can’t counter all the negative effects of sleep deprivation. Basic functions such as memory or attention are still going to be impaired if you have a poor sleep schedule.
Lack of sleep leads to awkward consequences
Sleep deprivation can lead to serious health issues. Mood swings, memory loss, and hallucinations are common symptoms people with severe sleep deprivation experience. These are the most concerning effects when you skip on sleep constantly, but studies found other surprising outcomes as well. Here are some strange effects of sleep deprivation that scientists have noticed:
- Lack of sleep makes people have low pain tolerance
- People who sleep less have a hard time recognizing emotions
- Sleep-deprived individuals show lower empathy levels
- Sleep deprivation makes people feel disconnected from their bodies and thoughts
- Sleep-deprived people who take time-reaction tests can’t asses their performance properly