Infants and small children fight it. Teens exploit it. Due to busy lives, adults crave sleep. Science hasn’t figured out why we sleep, but it has studied the benefits to the body and brain.
Learning And Memory Are Improved
We’ve all seen movies in which a tape machine slowly runs down, complete with distorted sound and squeaking celluloid. When we don’t get enough sleep, our brain works like that. It’s sluggish, it can’t grasp new information, and what information was already there the brain can’t seem to fetch.
When we sleep, the brain wipes clean the slate of memory and learning, preparing it for more information tomorrow. What we learned yesterday is tucked away in a brainy filing cabinet.
Memories are tucked away in another filing cabinet, so that we can make new ones tomorrow. The body begins sending messages to the brain to heal what’s wrong with its organs and systems.
Every system and organ has hormones. These are the “traffic cops” of the body. Some direct other hormones to the systems requiring them, telling them how to do what they do and when.
In sleep, these hormones work to make the systems and organs ready for the morrow. That’s why people wake up bright eyed and glowing after a good night’s sleep.
Metabolism and sleep are controlled by the same part of the brain. This means that the hormones controlling the appetite increase when we need sleep. Research has shown that dieters who got enough sleep lost more actual fat than those who didn’t. The sleep-deprived lost muscle mass, but not actual weight.
Stress comes from anywhere. It can come from inside us when we’re worried about something. It can come from outside us from sources like work, traffic, or something as insignificant as a wonky wheel on the shopping cart.
What it does inside us is serious. Stress gives us high blood pressure which leads to heart attack and stroke. The heart beats rapidly, the breath comes in puffs like a runner experiences, and the muscles become tense and tight. We eat more high sugar and fatty foods in order to calm the stress. We smoke and/or drink.
What’s happening is the stress hormone cortisol is being released into the body by the stressful situation. It’s called the “fight or flight” mechanism. The hormone works with every part of the body to handle inflammation, the digestion, blood pressure, and more.
When the stress trigger is gone, the cortisol levels in the blood should decrease. If the stress trigger hangs around, the cortisol levels remain high. Sleep keeps cortisol at acceptable levels. When we don’t get enough sleep, the cortisol remains at high levels. We wake just as stressed as we were before going to sleep in a never-ending cycle.
No Car Accidents
Sleep-deprived drivers’ brains are foggy, making reaction times slower than those whose sleep is adequate. The driver’s ability to see details and make the proper decision is severely impaired. For example, the brain can’t get messages to the feet in time to stomp on the brakes when it sees a car stopped ahead, or even make the decision that using the brakes is necessary.
Emotional Roller Coaster
Those who don’t get enough sleep wake up irritable and with a short fuse. The part of the brain dealing with emotions is called the amygdala. It governs the immediacy of emotional responses. It works hand in glove with the prefrontal cortex which governs the impulsive nature of emotions.
When people are sleep deprived, the amygdala causes them to snap at someone. A second later, the prefrontal cortex tells the amygdala the snap wasn’t necessary, and the person apologizes for the irritated response.
Research has shown lack of sleep as causing depression. When the brain’s emotional function is slowed or just plain cut off, we see things more negatively. We feel a lack of hope, and we see no reason to be happy. People getting enough sleep are more stable emotionally.
It’s easy to see how getting enough sleep keeps the body and brain on its toes and functioning properly. Most adults need six to eight hours of sleep in order to function properly.