As per a recent 2019 study, India is among the Top 5 most sleep-deprived nations of the world, consistently averaging less than 6 hours 45minutes of sleep per day. I am sure some people will now stand up on their chairs and shout at me, not a big deal, I can function on even less sleep or that I have pulled multiple all-nighters and here I am all hale and hearty reading your blog post. If you are that person, then you are certainly missing out on the miraculous benefits of a full night’s sleep.
Well, if you really sleep less than the national average (which is already much much worse than the global average), or have trouble sleeping, or are simply curious as to why you need to “sacrifice” one-third of your life lying down with your eyes closed when you could have been working on your next project, or binge-watching another web series, or scrolling through those crazy funny memes, or maybe talk all night (or whatever you want to do all night) with your partner instead, then this article is tailor-made for you. I don’t know what your motivation is, but if you stick around till the end, you’ll definitely want to make sleep a priority.
Let us begin with the basic question. Why do we sleep?
WHY DO WE SLEEP?
“If sleep does not serve an absolutely vital function, then it is the biggest mistake the evolutionary process has ever made.” Yet sleep has persisted for as long as animal and human species have existed. Every species studied to date ‘sleeps’ in some way or another. This persistence of sleep throughout evolution naturally means that the benefits of sleep spectacularly outweigh all the obvious hazards and detriments; unless of course Mother Nature herself went to sleep and forgot to switch off this behavior in species. That doesn’t seem to be the case.
Even a 5-year-old will tell you that sleep is a way of resting the body. What we do throughout the day makes us tired and therefore we sleep to restore our energy so that we can do all that stuff we did in the day again the following day. This is kindergarten-level knowledge and science has moved way beyond this explanation.
Research shows that sleep fulfills numerous functions for both the brain and the body. “There does not seem to be one major organ within the body or process within the brain that isn’t optimally enhanced by sleep and detrimentally impaired when we don’t get enough.“
Now that I have your attention let’s begin with what you came for, the shocking benefits of sleep, all deduced by tons of scientific research, experiments, and all the other stuff scientists do in their labs.
A balanced diet, exercise and adequate sleep form the holy trinity of physical and mental health.
THE AMAZING BENEFITS OF SLEEP
Initially, the question faced by the scientific community was, ‘What is sleep good for?’ but that has now been replaced with, ‘Is there any biological function that does not benefit by a good night’s sleep?’ And science is getting more and more convinced that there aren’t any such functions.
Sleep improves our ability to learn, memorize and make logical decisions
Within the brain, sleep enriches a diversity of functions, including our ability to learn, memorize and make logical decisions and choices. A good night’s sleep means better concentration, productivity and sharper cognitive abilities during the following day. Studies have also shown improved problem-solving skills and enhanced memory performance in both children and adults post adequate sleep. This is the reason why people are advised to sleep well and not pull all-nighters the night before an important exam or presentation.
Sleep stabilizes our psychological and emotional health
There is evidence for causal relationship between sleep and emotional brain function. Sleep loss has consistently been associated with subjective reports of increased irritability and emotional volatility. Scientists found that even one night of experimentally controlled sleep loss increased subjective instances of stress, anxiety, and anger in response to low-stress situations, and increased impulsivity towards negative stimuli. Such findings are replicated by age the recurring observations demonstrating that most mood and anxiety disorders co-occur with one or more sleep abnormalities. So, if you have an important life decision to make, the best thing you can do is sleep well the prior night. Of course, this doesn’t mean all decisions you make after adequate sleep will be best for you, but it will certainly reduce your chances of choosing wrong options because of emotional fatigue.
Sleep boosts our immune system
Sleep boosts our immune system thereby helping fight malignancy, preventing infection, and warding off all manner of sickness. Sleep supports the initiation of an adaptive immune response. Effects of hormones, danger signals in the body and immune rhythms are regulated by intrinsic cellular clocks and sleep is a very important of this body clock of ours. In addition, immune activation, especially protein synthesis and cell proliferation, needs energy, and the endocrine changes during sleep allow for the allocation of energy-rich fuels like glucose from insulin-dependent tissues (e.g. muscle) to the immune system.
Sleep controls the body’s metabolic state and appetite
Sleep reforms the body’s metabolic state by fine tuning the balance of insulin and circulating glucose in the blood stream. Sleep further regulates our appetite, helping control body weight through healthy food selection rather than rash impulsiveness. Studies show that sleep-deprived individuals have a bigger appetite and tend to eat more calories. This is due to higher levels of ghrelin, the hormone that stimulates appetite, and reduced levels of leptin, the hormone that suppresses appetite. So, if you’re trying to lose weight, fix you sleep routine before going to the next diet plan.
Plentiful sleep maintains a flourishing microbiome in your gut
The gut is where our nutritional health begins. Poor sleep has been strongly linked to long-term inflammation of the digestive tract, hampering the good bacteria of the gut. The relationship between sleep and the microbiome is increasingly seen as a two-way street. Our microbiota seems to have an effect on how we sleep. In turn, sleep and circadian rhythms appear to affect the health and diversity of the important bacterial world that lives in our gut.
Sleep affects our brain’s ability to efficiently wash away its unwanted fluids and toxins
Sleep is critical to the function of the brain’s waste removal system, a system of plumbing which depends on blood vessels and pumps cerebral spinal fluid (CSF) through brain tissue to wash away waste. The process is important because what’s getting washed away during sleep are waste proteins that are toxic to brain cells. This could explain why we don’t think clearly after a sleepless night and why a prolonged lack of sleep can actually kill an animal or a person.
A good night’s sleep can help maximize athletic performance
Several studies in team sports have demonstrated that competitive success in competition is related to increased sleep duration and quality. In a study on basketball players, longer sleep was shown to significantly improve speed, accuracy, reaction times, and mental well-being. This is the reason professional athletes sleep for more than 10 hours during their peak training periods.
A short afternoon nap (less than 1 hour) is associated with increased productivity
People who nap at work show much lower levels of stress. Surely, all of us have experienced renewed enthusiasm after a short afternoon nap. Napping also improves memory, cognitive function, and mood. But this nap needs to be in addition to a good quality nightly sleep and not as an alternative.
Assessing brainwave activity during sleep helps in early prediction of dementia
Your brainwave activity during sleep can be evaluated for diagnostic prediction of the type of dementia the person might develop later in life. Such predictions are increasingly being studied for Alzheimer’s disease.
REM sleep is vital for our ability to recognize behavior and patterns
Humans spend disproportionately more time in REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep (for simplicity read dream sleep) than all other primates, giving a clear indication of the substantial benefits dream has for humans. REM sleep increases our ability to recognize. This benefit comes in handy in the complex human society where we are constantly recognizing and categorizing faces, expressions, body language, and behavior. One only needs to look at disorders like Autism and Down’s syndrome to understand how challenging and different social life can be without these emotional navigational abilities working optimally. These recognizing and comprehending abilities further facilitates our decision making.
REM sleep also fuels creativity
It is in REM sleep that our brain begins to bring together pre-stored long-term information from our existing memories. This mnemonic collision of existing ideas sparks new creative insights which we commonly know as creativity.
HOW MUCH SLEEP IS ENOUGH SLEEP?
If you are highly convinced by these evidences and are considering planning your days in such a way that you get adequate sleep and thereby reap the benefits I so meticulously listed then the next big question you will ask is, “How much sleep is enough sleep?”
Well, there are as many answers to this question as the number of sleep scientists in this world. Since this article is heavily inspired from the latest book I read called ‘Why we sleep’ by Matthew Walker, it’s only fair that I mention his recommendation.
Exactly 8 hours each night for healthy adults.
I know what you are thinking, that’s too strict and even if I try there will inevitably be nights when I will not able to sleep 8 hours. Worry not, I have you covered here as well. As long as you promise to try to sleep close to the optimum hours each night I will share some not so stringent data as well.
The American National Sleep Foundation recommends that adults get anywhere between seven and nine hours of sleep a night.
“When duration of sleep drops below seven hours, and especially when it starts to move toward six and half hours or less, a number of different disorders begin to increase in prevalence,” says Dr. Dinges. “Most experts would agree that there is a kind of sweet spot that most people should aim for, and for the average healthy adult that zone is ideally somewhere between 7 and 7 and a half hours. That is what the consensus evaluations of more than a thousand scientific articles have yielded—the consensus of evaluations conducted by the AASM (American Academy of Sleep Medicine) and Sleep Research Society jointly.”
TL;DR: Sleep is the single most effective thing we can do to reset our brain and body health each day. If you want your body to function optimally the way it should do not compromise with your daily 8 hours of sleep.
P.S. I am not exactly sure what will make me happier, the fact that this article didn’t make you sleepy or that it put you to sleep 😛
This article was inspired by the book ‘Why we Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams ‘ by Matthew Walker. If you liked this article you would certainly love the book. Check it out here(Affiliate link)