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The importance of sleep & why we need it

We all take sleep for granted until we have problems with it and then we quickly remember how desirable a good night's sleep is. The need to sleep is a fundamental human given and it is important for teachers, psychotherapists, employers and others to know something about it if they are to be effective.

This is because all human abilities (like paying attention, memory recall and learning) are made worse by poor sleep and there is an intimate relationship between sleep and many psychological conditions — for example, depressionanxiety and psychosis.

Whenever people seem to be having difficulties in their life always enquire about their sleep patterns.

The puzzle of sleeping

It can seem surprising that human beings, who can be so full of life, energy, plans and activities, can, at a certain point each day, disengage from life, lie down and apparently become oblivious to the outside world for up to eight hours. (We spend up to one-third of our life asleep.) When we sleep we are vulnerable to attack since we are no longer aware of what is going on and are in no position to defend ourselves. Yet all mammals, birds and even cold-blooded reptiles sleep so there must be good reasons for it.

Why do we need sleep?

Sleep scientists are increasingly discovering more about this mysterious state. There are two very distinct kinds of sleep: REM (rapid eye movement sleep when we dream) and non-REM sleep, also called slow wave sleep (SWS). During REM sleep there is a paralysis of the anti-gravity muscles and the brain's neocortex and emotional centres become highly aroused.

The waking life of animal organisms is a dynamic, destructive time because the organisms' complex proteins are torn down and exhausted as they are used for activities including locating and ingesting preformed organic molecules to meet the immediate energy needs of the wakened state and to provide the building block proteins which fuel the repair and growth dynamics that occur during sleep.

Slow wave sleep is the dynamic, constructive time of physical healing and growth for animal organisms, a recuperative stage where the mind/body system rebuilds itself after a hard day surviving in the world. Substances ingested during the awake period are synthesized into the complex proteins of living tissue; growth hormones are secreted to assist with the healing of muscles and repairing general wear and tear in tissues; glial cells (neurones in the brain) are refreshed with sugars to restore the brain with energy; the immune system is boosted.

By contrast, in REM sleep large amounts of the brain's energy reserves are expending on dreaming. Dreaming is clearly performing a very important function. Brain wave patterns measured by an electroence-phalogram (EEG) during sleep are similar to waking brain wave patterns. REM sleep occupies about twenty-five percent of a healthy adult's sleep time and dreaming in this state is the deepest trance state known. In the neonate and the foetus REM sleep is the dominant form of sleep and is in some way connected to the programming of instincts into us.

Non-REM sleep is characterised by a slow wave pattern on the EEG. It is divided into stages 1—4 that show an increasingly slow wave pattern, and represent an increasing depth of sleep. In healthy people this sleep pattern lasts about ninety minutes and is followed by REM sleep. Longer periods of REM sleep tend to occur towards the morning.

Sleep problems

In elderly people, REM sleep decreases to about twenty per cent of sleep time and the time spent in deep sleep shortens. They also wake up more frequently. Elderly people often catnap during the day because they don't get such good quality sleep during the night; however, they still require the same amount of sleep. Elderly people are more likely to suffer from insomnia because of an increased likelihood of medical complications. Using too much medication is also a common cause of insomnia, especially in the elderly.

Sleep problems affect every age group. With the rapid change in modern living they are taking an increasing toll on our mental and physical health. Seventeen per cent of the population now has a serious insomnia problem. For millions more people the body's need to have an appropriate amount of quality sleep is frequently compromised to meet their perceived need to have more 'awake' time. If they knew the likely price, they would give an adequate night's sleep a much higher priority.

Sleep is much more than time out from busy schedules; it is essential to the maintenance of physical and psychological health.

Sleep and healing

We sleep more when we are sick with an infection or develop a fever. When our temperature rises, our organs work more quickly, antibodies are synthesised more rapidly and antibiotics are taken up more quickly. It seems that the high temperature may kill off certain microbes.

Even when we are asleep without a fever, our immune function works harder than when we are awake. This explains why many groups of people who are prone to sleep deprivation — junior doctors and other shift workers, for example — suffer more illness and infection than the general population. And why people suffering depression and stress because of the death of a partner are more prone to serious ill-health and more likely than others to die within a year of their spouse's death.

Sleep and accidents

The emotional levels of sleep are also important; the National Sleep Foundation in the USA reports that people with chronic insomnia are more likely than others to develop several kinds of psychiatric problems.

Even temporary sleep loss can impair our ability to concentrate, cope with minor irritations and accomplish tasks, all of which can put a strain on our relationships. When we lose sleep we — and those around us — are at high risk from accidents at work and on the road. For example, a report prepared for the National Commission on Sleep Disorders in the USA arrived at the conservative estimate that sleepiness accounted for nearly forty-two per cent of road accidents. In 1988, a total of 269,184 accidents and 17,687 deaths on the road were caused by sleepy drivers.

The medical profession, of course, also suffers from the effects of sleepiness. The amount of sleep a doctor has is a major factor in his or her ability to detect heart abnormalities. One study showed that rested doctors were fourteen per cent more likely to detect breaks in the normal heart rhythms than were doctors with a sleep deficit. In yet another study sleep-deprived doctors were shown to be extremely indecisive, and videotapes showed that sleep-deprived surgeons operate inefficiently and incompetently for nearly a third of the time.

Perhaps it is not so surprising, then, that research shows that many accidents, mistakes and bad decisions so often caused by people who have too little sleep.


Find out more – about the importance of the REM State >

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Date posted: 14/02/2024