Have you ever considered how important sleep is and why we do it?

The basic reason is because we’re tired…


But, other obvious reason is that it restores our energy and mental ability to function properly. Strangely, for most of us we don’t give sleep a second thought. Sleep itself just seems like a habitual thing we do without understanding it’s true importance.

According to Russell Foster, a circadian neuroscientist who studies the sleep cycles of the brain, sleep is the single most important behavioural experience that we have.

“If you’re an average person, 36 percent of your life will be spent asleep, which means that if you live to ninety then 32 years will have been spent entirely asleep.” – Russell Foster


So, if you can gather any insight from what that statistic is telling us, it is that sleep is at some level, important.
In this incredibly interesting TED Talk (see below), Russell Foster asks the question: What do we know about sleep? It turns out, we don’t know much. In this talk, Foster shares three popular theories about why we sleep, busts some myths about how much sleep we need at different ages — and hints at some bold new uses of sleep as a predictor of mental health.
He believes our ignorance about sleep is quite profound and it’s partly because, well, we don’t really do anything whilst we sleep – it seems. You don’t eat, you don’t drink, and you don’t have sex…ahem…. (his words, not mine!)
Here are a few of the pointers that Foster highlights during his speech:

3 ideas about why we sleep:

imgur.com / Via reddit.com
  1. Restoration: what we burn up during the day, we restore during the night
  2. Energy Conservation: sleeping conserves energy otherwise wasted when awake. True, but somewhat debatable
  3. Brain Processing and Memory Consolidation: what we know is that after you’ve tried to learn a task, and you sleep deprive individuals, the ability to learn that task is smashed

However, the third point is not just about the laying down of memory and recalling it. What Foster has discovered is that our ability to come up with novel solutions to complex problems is hugely advanced by a night of sleep, and concludes that sleeping at night enhances our creativity.

So, when you’re tired you have:

  • Poor memory
  • Increased impulsiveness
  • Poor judgement 

But, it’s worse than that! If you have a tired brain, the brain craves things to make it up, such as:

Another connection between loss of sleep is weight gain. So, if you sleep around about 5 hours or less every night, then you have a 50% likelihood of being obese. Why? Because sleep loss gives rise to the hunger hormone ghrelin. When it is released, it gets to the brain and triggers the brain to think it needs carbohydrates – and in particular, sugars.



What about stress?

Tired people are stressed, which has a connection to loss of memory. Acutely stressed is not so much the problem. It’s sustained stress that is the main problem, which leads to suppressed immunity. The link here is that tired people tend to have a higher risk of infection and are more susceptible to things like the common cold. I’m sure you can all relate to this one!

stressed cat

Some other interesting links between stress and lack of sleep:

  • Studies have found that shift workers have higher rates of cancer
  • An increase of stress also throws glucose into the circulation. Glucose becomes a dominant part of the vasculature and essentially becomes glucose intolerant and therefore results in diabetes type two
  • Stress increases cardiovascular disease as a result of raising blood pressure

So, you can see from these findings that are associated with sleep loss than just the 3 basic ideas outlined above.


How do you know if you’re getting enough sleep?

Well, the key thing here is to listen to what your body needs, so…

  • If you rely on an alarm clock to wake up in the morning
  • If you take a long time to get up in the morning
  • If need a lot of stimulants to get going
  • If you are grumpy or irritable
  • If you’re told by your work colleagues that you’re looking tired and irritable…

…chances are you probably sleep-deprived.

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How do you solve sleep deprivation?

  • Make your bedroom a haven for sleep – make it dark as you possibly can and slightly cool. BUT, morning light is important to reset your light-dark cycle.
  • Reduce you amount of light exposure at least half an hour before you go to bed. This is because light increases your levels of alertness and will delay sleep. So:
    • Try to avoid being in a bathroom with super bright lights when brushing your teeth
    • Turn off or don’t look at your phone or computer or anything else electronic that will naturally excite the brain
    • Try not to drink caffeine too late in the day


Myths about sleep

  • Teenagers are lazy: Not really, according to Foster. They simply have a biological disposition to go to bed late and get up late
  • We need 8 hours of sleep a night: This is an average. Some people need more and some people need less. LISTEN TO YOUR BODY
  • Old people need less sleep: Not true. The sleep demands of the aged do not diminish, they simply fragment and become less robust
  • Cosmo Kramer’s 20 minutes of sleep every 3 hours leaves you feeling radiant: If Seinfeld is anything to go by, then this is most definitely not true! 🙂


New breaking areas of neuroscience

The last part of Foster’s speech talks about the breaking areas of neuroscience and sleep’s association with mental health, mental illness and sleep disruption. In fact, these areas aren’t just associated, they are physically linked within the brain.
I won’t spoil Foster’s fun here, so I’d recommend you watch the video below (it goes for about 20 minutes, but it’s very intriguing).
If you don’t have 20 minutes to spare right now, scroll down to see the top things that sleep is good for.

11 things sleep is good for

We should all take our sleep seriously because it does these wonderful things:

It increases:

  • Concentration
  • Attention
  • Decision making
  • Creativity
  • Social skills
  • Health

It decreases:

  • Mood change
  • Stress
  • Anger
  • Impulsiveness
  • Desire to drink and smoke


And then…


Hopefully you found this post of value. If it put you to sleep, then perhaps you needed it. If it didn’t, well done. I hope this has made you rethink what sleep means to you. Maybe it will make you rethink your need to have a coffee every morning. Sleep isn’t something to take for granted. I know most people love their sleep, but there are many (including me) who postpone a good night’s sleep for disrupting things like computers and phones.

Like, share, comment if you found this post either useful or amusing (how good are the animated gifs!).


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