Sleep. A word that has escaped our vocabularies and an act that many of us have created a serious and unhealthy aversion to.
Whatever reasons we may concoct to avoid contact with our beds — homework, jobs, relationships — sleep really does help us more than we lead ourselves to believe. I know I personally hold my own convictions about the time I spend eyes shut and body immobile, tucked beneath my duvet, and how I can utilize that time by being more productive by getting work done. But sleep really isn’t a waste of time and certainly is something worth investing in. The benefits of sleep have been researched and published by a resource from the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School and WGBH Educational Foundation and The Huffington Post.
Our bodies have a regulating sleep cycle much in the same way that our bodies regulate what we eat through our digestion processes, what we drink and when we breathe. When we sleep, we are more attentive, happier and able to function more efficiently after we wake up.
Scientists have posted four theories as to why we sleep, and why we need it, according to healthysleep.med.harvard.edu: the Inactivity Theory, the Energy Conservation Theory, the Restorative Theory and the Brain Plasticity Theory.
Inactivity at night is comes from our reflexive survival function to keep organisms out of harm’s way. The Inactivity Theory proposes that when animals stay still and quiet during periods of vulnerability, they have an advantage over animals that are instead active during these periods (such as nocturnal animals like owls). Through natural selection, this strategy of inactivity during vulnerable times, like the night, became recognized as sleep.
Studies show that one of the strongest factors in natural selection is the competition for and effective utilization of our energy sources.
The Energy Conservation Theory states that sleep’s primary function is to reduce our personal demands for energy and how said energy is spent during different times of the day and night. The rate at which our metabolism works is significantly reduced during sleep, as well as our body temperature and caloric demand. Because of this, the primary function of sleep is to help us conserve our energy resources, relating this theory to the Inactivity Theory.
Many believe sleep provides a period of rest and serves as a time of restoration, where our bodies are able to regain what we lose while we are awake. Studies surrounding this “restorative” quality proved that those who are entirely deprived of sleep lose all functions of their immune system, and the rates of muscle growth and tissue repair slow down. A lack of sleep also slows the speed at which our brain functions. The Brain Plasticity Theory is a phenomenon connected to the development of our cognitive skills while we sleep.
Sleeping more reaps benefits such as: memory improvement, curbing inflammation, academic improvement, maintaining a healthy weight, lowering your stress levels. While you are asleep, your mind practices “consolidation,” which is where it takes the time you spend sleeping to strengthen skills you learned during the day. Consolidation also works to recall memories to improve your memory by the time you wake up next.
Additionally, consolidation doesn’t only strengthen your memories while you sleep, but also has the capacity to reorganize and restructure them to help spur a more creative process. Researchers at both Harvard University and Boston College found that sleep strengthens the more emotional aspects of memories, adding onto greater levels of creativity.
Sleeping more helps you feel better, but its actual importance reaches far beyond its ability of improving your mood or improving the quality of your skin and other physical aspects that are often affected by the amount of sleep you get per night. An adequate amount of sleep is a key part of a healthy lifestyle, and can benefit your heart, weight, mind, and more.
So the next time you’re urged to pull that all-nighter, try thinking about giving your body (and mind!) a break.