Scientists still aren’t entirely sure about all the fundamentals of why we sleep. In the 1990’s sleep researcher J. Allan Hobson joked that the only known function of sleep was to cure sleepiness. But they know it’s important because all animals do it. They also know it’s important because thousands of studies show the damage that comes about when we don’t get enough of it. Rats totally deprived of REM sleep all die within a month. (Stickgold, 2015)
Inadequate or disordered sleep can give rise to a number of intertwined pathologies. Obesity, depression, a weakened immune system, and even death can come about from a lack of sleep. (Sanders, 2009) Robert Stickgold, director of the Center for Sleep and Cognition at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, says that “The clearest finding is that sleep does not serve just a single purpose. Instead it appears to be needed for the optimal functioning of a multitude of biological processes – from the inner workings of the immune system to proper hormonal balance, to emotional and psychiatric health, to learning and memory, to the clearance of toxins from the brain. …None of these functions fails completely in the absence of sleep …sleep seems to enhance the performance of these systems instead of being absolutely necessary. And yet anyone who lives for months without sleep will die.” (Stickgold, 2015, p. 52)
Why sleep is important for health & vitality
Throughout sleep, most of the blood in the body is directed towards muscles to help replenish muscular energy. (Jacobs, 1998, p. 17) Sleep also seems to help ramp up the immune system so that it can fight illness. For example, those who enjoy a good night’s rest after receiving vaccinations display a 97% higher level of antibodies than those who are sleep deprived. In fact, those who averaged less than 6 hours of sleep a night after their first vaccination for hepatitis B had such a low immune response that they wouldn’t even be protected from the virus in the future, rendering the vaccination useless. (Stickgold, 2015) This same lackluster immune response would come into play when it comes to the body’s ability to fight off everyday illness.
Sleep is important for a child’s growth and development. Two-thirds of a child’s daily growth hormone secretion occurs during sleep. So sleep has numerous benefits for a child’s physical health.
Why sleep is important for mental health
Research in recent years has found that proper sleep also plays an important role in mental health. For example, sleep problems are higher among those kids diagnosed with ADHD, and adults with sleep apnea have up to 5-times the risk of depression. Teens who report daytime drowsiness are more likely than others to feel sad throughout the day, and research has also found that treating sleep disorders helps improve mood. (Levine, 2012)
Parents have always known that a tired child makes for a cranky child. Science now shows that when sleep problems go uncorrected, this can have a serious impact on a person’s mental health. In fact, a study in the February 2015 Journal of Youth and Adolescence found that after controlling for other factors, each hour of lost sleep translated into a 38% increase in the odds of feeling sad and hopeless, a 42% increase in considering suicide, a 58% increase in suicide attempts and a 23% increase in substance abuse. “Parents, educators and therapists need to pay attention to the role of sleep in preventing mental illness among youth,” says professor Adam Winsler, co-author of the study. “Its effect is likely larger than most therapies and medications.” (Rodriguez, 2015)
Lack of sleep has also been shown to lead to more unethical behavior among adults, such as cheating or stealing in the workplace. (Weinhouse, 2015) For people of all ages, inadequate sleep can have a cascading effect, resulting in lost productivity, fights, increased conflict and relationship problems. (Max, 2010)
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