We all do it, and many of us struggle to get enough. But have you ever stopped to ask ‘why do we sleep’? It’s such a strange and mysterious process that it makes you wonder why it exists at all. Well, the simple answer is that not sleeping would be disastrous. So keep reading to find out why we sleep and why you need to make sure you get enough.
What Even Is Sleep and How Does it Work?
Before you explore the why of sleep, you must explore the how. It’s something that humans do naturally, even unconsciously. However, scientists have long studied the phenomena in order to figure out exactly what’s going on. It all comes down to circadian rhythms.
Also known as your internal body clock, circadian rhythms induce feelings of tiredness from the moment you wake up, increasing them throughout the day. Your brain is constantly creating a compound called adenosine, which makes you increasingly drowsy until you drop off. As you snooze, this compound is broken down until your body (or alarm) clock decides it’s time to wake up.
Why Do We Sleep? Three Major Theories
So that’s the mechanics of sleep, but it doesn’t answer the question: ‘why do we sleep?’. This is a harder problem to solve, and there isn’t a single answer. However, there are several theories of sleep that offer a convincing explanation. Here are the three most widely accepted sleep theories.
One thing we know for sure about sleep is that it’s great for storing and consolidating your memories. Sleep-deprived people struggle to recall information that they just learned. However, if you study hard all day, then get a good night’s rest, you’ll remember much of the information in the morning.
It’s thought that while you’re unconscious, the brain is busy organising memories. It’s moving them from short-term to long-term memory. This helps you navigate life more effectively, preparing you for any obstacles you may encounter in the future.
Repair and Restoration
Another theory put forward about why we sleep is that it gives the body a chance to repair itself. As you use your cells, they become weakened. However, while you’re resting, they have a chance to repair themselves. This helps your physiological processes continue working for longer. This theory is backed up by the fact that your rate of cell division and protein synthesis increases while you’re asleep.
It’s also thought that your body uses this time to remove waste toxins that have built up inside you during the day. Studies on mice have shown that their brain cells create waste products as they’re used during waking hours. While sleeping, brains increase their production of fluid, which cleans out this waste.
Conservation of Energy
Finally, many scientists believe we sleep simply to conserve energy. We need our energy during the day, and we can get it back by sleeping. The body shuts down to only its most essential functions, and everything else is given a chance to recover.
In general, animals sleep depending on how vulnerable they are to predators. Lions and bears, who have no natural predators in the wild, will happily spend up to 15 hours a day snoozing. Smaller prey animals can get by on just a couple of hours of sleep. They will choose to sleep when it’s safest to do so, regaining the energy they need to escape predators when they awaken.
The Incredible Benefits of Sleep
The debate rages on about which theory of sleep is correct or whether it may be a combination of all three. However, there’s no doubt about the amazing health benefits of sleep. Here are a few reasons why experts recommend you get enough shut-eye:
- Sleep will boost your immune system
- Sleep consolidates and stores memories
- Well-rested people have better moods and relationships
- Sleep improves focus and concentration
- Sleep regulates appetite, preventing weight gain
- Sleep promotes a healthy heart
- A good sleep lowers stress
The Devastating Impact of Insomnia
Conversely, not getting enough sleep can be extremely detrimental to your health and well-being. In 1963, two boys conducted a no-sleep experiment. Going without sleep for 11 days, they went into a state of extreme low mood, an inability to concentrate, and eventually began to experience paranoia and even hallucinations.
The boys recovered and the long-term health effects were minimal. However, if you’re someone who isn’t sleeping well over several years, then you might not be so lucky. It’s well documented that insomnia can lead to the following health issues:
- Increased risk of diabetes, heart attack, and stroke
- Uncontrollable weight gain
- Mental health conditions like depression and anxiety
- Irritability and confusion
- A shortened life expectancy: your risk of death increases as much as 12%
How Much Sleep Do You Need?
These health impacts hopefully help us answer the question of ‘why do we sleep?’. We sleep because it keeps us productive, healthy, and happy. However, this still leaves the question of ‘how much is enough?’. This isn’t easy to answer and can vary significantly from person to person.
The official recommendation is that school children should aim for around 9-11 hours a night, while adults need 7-9. To find your exact number, create your optimal sleeping environment. Make your bedroom dark, quiet, and screen-free. Avoid caffeine after midday and don’t eat two hours before you sleep. If you do all this, then you’re giving your body the best chance of falling asleep at its natural time.
Then, don’t set an alarm clock. Simply allow your body to wake itself up when it’s ready. Repeat this, going to bed at the exact same time each night. After a few days, your body will be in sync with its circadian rhythm. Keep a note of what times you’re falling asleep and waking up. This will give you a good indication of how many hours of sleep you need to live a healthy and happy life.
Hopefully, you now have a better grasp of why sleep is so important. You can use natural sleep supplements to help find your circadian rhythm, allowing you to gain the full benefits of a good night’s rest. Now you know why sleep is so important, work on improving yours.