For most of us, sleep is something we do without thinking too much about it throughout our entire lives, from the moment we are born until the moment we are finally laid to rest. In fact, during an average life span, a person spends the equivalent of 27 years asleep!
Sleep is such a natural thing that most of us usually don't give it much thought.
When we do take the time to think about sleep, it's usually because we feel we haven't gotten enough of it, or because we feel need more than what would be considered a normal amount of sleep.
Despite our daily tendency to take sleep for granted, it really is a fairly controversial topic.
There are many different opinions about the subjects of why we sleep, how much sleep we should be getting each day, where we sleep, what makes the ideal sleep environment, why we don't sleep enough and why we sleep too much...just to name a few.
One area of consensus among researchers, and the general public as well, is that sleep must be necessary, otherwise we wouldn't spend so much of our lives doing it. Most of us also understand that sleep is simply nature's way of giving our minds and our bodies a rest.
Conclusions derived from early studies about the subject of sleep appeared to indicate that, during the sleep cycle, the body entered a state of near paralysis during which time very little activity took place. However, this belief began to change dramatically when studies began focusing on brain activity during sleep, rather than the outward, physical manifestations of sleep.
The realization that brain activity did not completely stop during the sleep state, but, actually remained active and organized, carrying out several physiological processes, led sleep researchers to a better understanding of what we refer to today as REM or Rapid Eye Movement sleep.
At its most basic level, sleep appears to be the body's natural method of recharging itself. We even commonly speak of "recharging our batteries" through a good night's sleep.
Even so, some still want to argue that sleeping is just a waste of time, and that there are ways to train ourselves to get by with much less sleep. These people argue that we would be better off without sleep.
But, is this the truth?
Most of us are well aware that we can miss one night's sleep and still function fairly normally the next day.
Hey! Doctors and cops do it all the time, don't they?
Sure, there may be some increased irritability, and perhaps some trouble staying focused, but overall, the body and the mind still function...don't they?
Yes, we may get by when the sleep loss is minor or temporary, but, in the case of longer periods without sleep, or with a chronic poor sleep history, there comes a noticeable decline in the brain's capabilities, specifically in areas that control our language, our memories, and our ability to make plans and envisage patterns. The symptoms that can develop are similar to the symptoms that occur when we drink excess amounts of alcohol. These symptoms of sleep deprivation also include slowed reactions, and impaired ability to think rationally.
At this point, not only is it possible that health and performance may be negatively affected, but, this is also when a person faces an increased risk of becoming involved in an accident.
Which brings me to this: I used to teach a course on fatigue and safety for a major American transportation company. One point we stressed in our training was that, after about 17 hours without sleep, a person's judgment and reflexes were affected almost as if they had had a few drinks too many.
While we can "get by" with occasional lapses in quality or quantity of sleep, any lack of sleep can cause problems, such as proper regulation of body temperature, and can cause metabolism to increase.
After extended periods of poor, or no, sleep, hallucinations usually begin. So it does seem that we need to sleep for health and life.
Some of the popular theories about why we need sleep are:
I am sure that the real reason why we need sleep will likely be discovered some day, but until then, the mystery continues...but, research tells us that the proper amount of good quality sleep is important for our mental and physical well-being.
- Sleep is a restorative process.
- Sleep enhances the brain's ability to remember.
- Sleep is a way to conserve energy.
- Sleep is a way to keep us safe from predators.
- Sleep just feels so good, why not!
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