The Benefits of Sleep

Growing up, we often hear the benefits of getting a good night’s rest – improvements in productivity and concentration, better eating habits, decreased chances of heart disease and stroke, decreased chances of diabetes, and the list goes on.

During sleep, changes occur in the body that affect our immune system; body parts relax and get rest, counteracting the wear and tear of the day’s activity. The general clean-up work carried on through the bloodstream operates efficiently and the chemical balance is restored. To think of it in another sense, compare sleep to a night crew that comes in to get things repaired and cleaned up for the next day.

An important function of sleep is to allow the nervous system to recuperate from its use during the day. As The World Book Encyclopedia states, “sleep restores energy to the body, particularly to the brain and nervous system.”

The Dangers from Lack of Sleep

With all the benefits of sleep constantly being outlined to us, it can be easy to overlook the dangers that a lack of sleep can cause.

According to The Toronto Star, “Researchers are becoming increasingly concerned about the number of people who get far too little sleep. Chronic lack of sleep, they warn, can have dire consequences both for ourselves and the people around us”.

Lack of sleep can lead to major problems. More than one sleepy person has fallen asleep at the wheel of a motor vehicle and become involved in a fatal accident. Sleeplessness can also lead to family and marital problems, since persistent lack of sleep makes one more irritable and harder to get along with. Getting a good night’s sleep is more important than some may realise.

Sleep deprivation can lead people to lose energy and become short-tempered. A study in the The World Book Encyclopedia revealed that “after two days without sleep, a person finds that lengthy concentration becomes difficult”, with many mistakes being made as well as attention slips.

Explained in the same study, “people who go without sleep for more than three days have great difficulty thinking, seeing and hearing clearly. Some have periods of hallucinations, during which they see things that do not really exist”.

On this, a multitude of tests have also found that after four days of sleeplessness, a test subject could perform only a few routine tasks. Those tasks requiring attention or even minimum mental agility became unbearable. Loss of concentration and mental agility were not the worst factors. After four and a half days, there were signs of delirium and the person’s visual world world became quite grotesque.

The Role of Sleep

Sleep, or at least a period of rest, seems to be universal among living creatures. If you have had pets such as cats, dogs or birds, you have no doubt observed that cats and dogs regularly curl up and drop off to sleep and that birds become quiet and go to sleep when darkness comes. Just about all animals, birds and insects have a need for sleep, or at least periods of reduced activity. For humans, sleep is an absolute must.

Some people think sleep is simply a period of rest, but it is more than that. “Sleep is actually a complicated process of muscles tensing and relaxing, pulse and blood pressure rising and falling and the mind churning out its own home movies,” says The Toronto Star. “When a person falls asleep,” states The World Book Encyclopedia, “all activity decreases and the muscles relax. The heartbeat and breathing rate slow down.”

Although scientists, doctors and researchers have studied sleep for many decades, basic mysteries remain about its vital role. These investigators have not even discovered what sleep actually is or why we sleep. Says Dr. Eliot Phillipson of the sleep research laboratory at Toronto’s Queen Elizabeth Hospital: “We don’t know the critical biological events that occur in sleep that restore us.”

How Much Sleep?

Most adults need seven or eight hours of sleep every night. Some require less, others more. There are some who say that they do reasonably well on four or five hours, though some of them may take naps during the day. Infants need much more sleep than adults.

Particularly when people get older, they may find that they awaken several times during the night. Some may feel that this is a sign of the onset of serious sleep problems. However, while older people may not have the same quality of sleep that they did when they were younger, experiments have shown that waking up a few times during the night is not a cause for alarm. Usually, the waking time for most who do this is brief, perhaps only a few minutes, before they fall asleep again.

No matter what one’s age is though, one should not expect to have the same soundness of sleep all night. Sleep works in cycles of deeper sleep alternating with lighter sleep. In the course of a night, a person may have a number of these cycles.

Sleep Debt

“People behind on sleep can walk, hear and see like everyone else. However, research shows that the ability to reason, the power to make decisions and to remain alert are weakened,” says Veja magazine. The article quotes experts who warn of the dangers of missing out on necessary sleep. A survey by Dr. Denis Martinez, president of the Brazilian Society for Sleep, shows that “2 of every 10 job accidents are due to sleeping poorly at night.” Dr. Martinez warns that those who get little sleep, “for example, working at three jobs, are simply selling their health to the job market.”

Better Sleeping Habits

“Insomnia may seem productive to many people, but the consequences of denying the body hours of sleep will end up being rather unproductive,” says the Brazilian magazine Exame. Explains neurologist Rubens Reimão: “The organism will not forget the hours of sleep that a person owes it. On the contrary, it will always remember and will suddenly present a bill that can be translated into lapses of memory, concentration problems and slow thinking ability.” To avoid undue anxiety, Dr. Reimão recommends: “Leave the solving of work problems or the thinking about them for when you are at work.” For you to relax and sleep better, Exame suggests regular exercise, soft music, subdued lighting and good thoughts.

Sleep for Health

Is it true that getting plenty of rest helps the body to fight disease? Scientists say yes! They have discovered a definite link between the body’s immune response and deep sleep. According to American Health, they have found that tiny proteins known as muramyl peptides induce the most restful type of deep, dream-free sleep and “trigger the production of interleukin 1, [the “i” was NOT italic!] a key component of the body’s defensive system.” Researcher Dr. James M. Krueger believes that “sleep may play a role in the recuperative process, whether it’s recovery from a day’s activity or a disease.”

Herbal Recipe for Sleeplessness*

  • 40 g Valerian (Valeriana officinalis)
  • 30 g Hops (Humulus lupulus)
  • 30 g Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis)

Weigh the listed herbs into a bowl and mix well. Store the herbal mixture in a glass jar away from sunlight. Infuse one heaped teaspoon (1.5 g) of the mixture with one cup of boiling water, stand for 10 minutes and strain. Drink 2-3 cups during the day and one cup before bedtime.

*This recipe is readily available (pre-mixed) in teabag form.

Find this useful? Go ahead and gain a better understanding of the Endocrine and Reproductive Systems in ASOHM’s Lesson 8 today!

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