In today’s fast-paced world, sleep deprivation has become a norm. Sleeping for less than six hours a day, and enhancing productivity with the help of stimulants such as caffeine and nicotine are becoming shockingly commonplace. Such a practice is not only unhealthy but downright dangerous. For we all know that when deprived of sleep for long, the body would simply shutdown, irrespective of time and place.
Indeed, like food and water, sleep is indispensable to us. We, humans, spend one-third of our lives sleeping. Some of us might think that spending such a huge chunk of our lives ‘doing something as unproductive as sleeping’ is a waste. But the truth is, the hours we spend snoozing are crucial for the healthy functioning of the body, mind, and spirit. According to studies, a good night’s sleep improves our learning and problem solving skills, increases our attention, improves our decision-making abilities and also enhances our creativity.
But what is sleep? Why do we sleep? What happens in our body when we’re asleep? These questions have always fascinated the scientific community, giving rise to extensive research and findings on the topic. Sleep is a recurring state in which we actively disengage from our surroundings to rest, recuperate, and rejuvenate ourselves. During sleep, a lot of things happen in our body, helping us push the reset button, and wake up fresh the next morning. Here’s how sleep helps in the better functioning of the body, mind, and spirit.
In physiological terms, we sleep for two reasons: restoration and energy conservation. Russel Grant Foster is a British circadian neuroscientist. In his Ted Talk titled Why Do We Sleep? Foster says: “All the stuff we’ve burned out during the day, we restore, we replace, we rebuild during the night.”
As we lay more or less still during our sleeping hours, our muscles are completely relaxed. Our body temperature dips so do our blood pressure. Our heart rate slows down, gradually turning our breathing slow and deep. Growth hormones are secreted to carry out repairs and enable healing of wounds. There is less adrenaline pumping through our veins, as we’re usually under no threat while asleep. And hunger hormones leptin and ghrelin are regulated.
When an individual is deprived of sleep, many of these processes may not be carried out effectively. They may wake up tired and stressed out, and feel their aches and pains more acutely. The stress alone may compromise their immunity and make them more susceptible to infections. Furthermore, when the brain is tired, it craves stimulants like caffeinated drinks to function. It may also cause them to overeat. Says Foster in the Ted Talk: “People who regularly get five hours or less of sleep are 50 percent more likely to be obese. Sleep loss secretes the hunger hormone ghrelin. It gets to the brain and the brain says ‘I need carbohydrates.’ This may also increase the risk of insulin resistance, and eventually, diabetes.”
Sleep is often believed to clear the mind. “Sleep on it,” we’re told before taking important decisions. This is because the brain does a lot of organising and decluttering when we are asleep. Brain processing and memory consolidation are highly important processes that take place as we enjoy the sweet heaviness of slumber.
When we sleep, the neurons in our brain process the day’s events and interactions, turning them into long-term memory. Unimportant information and thoughts are discarded, while useful ones are filed away. This helps us remember things that matter and focus on important thought processes, in turn improving our ability to make good decisions. On the flip side, when we do not get enough sleep, we suffer from poor memory, poor creativity, increased impulsiveness and poor judgement.