The Importance of Sleep

– by Lee Smith, Ph.D.

Your word for the day is ‘soporific’ , meaning ‘something that causes sleep’. If this column is a soporific for you I’m not offended in the least, because sleep is important and my only intention here is to be helpful. You see, sleep and your brain and your health are intimately linked.

We think of sleep as a kind of shutting down, the opposite of being active. But when we sleep the boss of the show, our brain, is doing anything but sleeping while it’s busy, er, sleeping. Brain recordings during sleep show many distinct types of activity throughout the brain, the most pronounced being the 90 minute see-saw shift between the rapid eye movement (REM) stage and the non-REM stage. This activity is like a continuous 90 minute wave at the home of the Blue Jays, but with lots of other busyness going on at the same time.

Sleep is commonly disturbed by conditions such as pain, depression, bullying, stress and anxiety, by drug and alcohol consumption, trauma and many medical illnesses, making things even more difficult for us.

We might feel like sleep is a soft luxury that we can do without, something that some teens treat like a rented mule. But there’s a huge range of bodily and neural processes that depend on sleep which would be beyond the mother of all soporific textbooks to summarize. Here’s a quick survey to highlight the importance of sleep for all of us, from young to old.

The effect of sleep on our well-being starts before we know it. Women who are having sleep problems before they conceive their baby are more likely to have babies with a sleep disturbance. Children with an elevated body mass index may undergo sleep-related changes in hormonal processes that result in yet more fat storage. The possibility that childhood sleep problems may contribute to adult obesity has been noted for quite some time.

Children’s sleep problems may both be caused by and worsen emotional and behavioural problems. Sleep problems in childhood, as in adulthood, may be a sign of unspoken stress, anxiety or depression, or may be a biological marker for the later development of teen substance abuse.

Sleep helps us learn, and learning is crucial to all that we do. We have brain systems to remember what we’ve done, how to do things, for facts, for feelings. Memory first requires that our experiences in life be properly stored, like a book placed in the correct spot at the library, so that we can find it later. Sleep helps this process of learning at those spooky, ‘plastic’ cellular levels, those places that make us who we are. Research shows that sleep helps the brain’s ability to physically change, which is behind the ability to store and learn. Lots of research is showing that, when we sleep less, we are more forgetful and can have more difficulty learning new things. Sleepy people should be put to bed before being asked to make complex decisions, or fly planes.

Long term alcohol abuse harms sleep patterns even after a long period of sobriety.

Better sleep at night reduces that afternoon dip. Older adults experience more fragmented sleep, greater daytime sleepiness and they nap more often than younger adults. Extremes of sleep duration effect immune and inflammatory systems in the body.

There are lots of ways to improve your sleep hygiene and I suggest you continue to educate yourself. Reduce caffeine use – take none after the morning. Avoid napping because it can be like snacking before a meal. Alcohol and nicotine hurt restorative sleep. And establish a regular sleep schedule (brains love rhythms!). Sweet dreams!