Why is sleep important?

Why is sleep important?

Team ErbologyErbology

Sleep has many scientifically proven benefits. Find out why it matters so much for your health and wellbeing. 

April 28, 2022 5:44 pm

The rat race

Today, there are more than seven and a half billion people living on Earth.

As a species, we are unique in the animal kingdom. Apex predators, crop cultivators, agricultural innovators; we have a pretty impressive track record when it comes to survival and progression.

Fast-forward to the modern world, and we’ve developed our own complex societies, cultures and technologies. Work days are getting longer. For some of us, working late into the night is a badge of honour. We’re naturally competitive, and working harder and better keeps us at the head of the pack.

In fact, for many of us, the relentless pursuit of growth, satisfaction and greater productivity is just a normal part of modern life.

However, this constant grind is causing us to neglect the very thing we need to keep us going: sleep.


Why is sleep important for health

Why we’re all tired

In a society that values efficiency and productivity, switching your brain off for a few hours to recharge can seem like a waste of resources.

We’ve come to see constant busyness as a sign of prestige. Those who are constantly tired are deemed to be more important. They can’t steal a few hours of rest because they are needed elsewhere. They are the ones who make the big decisions, or are called in to save a situation from disaster.

On the other hand, we’ve started to associate sleep with laziness. Even our weekends – the time once reserved for catching up on rest – are under pressure. If you’re not up before 7am on a Saturday morning, ready for a bracing 10k run and a kale smoothie, then are you really being as productive as you could be?

Very often, we end up sacrificing sleep in order to find extra hours in the day. We need to keep up with our work, social lives, exercise regimes and – occasionally – Netflix binges.

It’s not surprising, then, that a recent survey found that most Americans are tired for most of the week. Of those of us who manage seven or eight hours of sleep a night, 45% feel tired three times a week or more. Meanwhile, 54% of those who get six hours feel tired four days or more per week.(1)

Finding a balance

While these statistics might seem painfully relatable, how much does tiredness actually matter? Should we be putting more effort into finding a balance between work and rest?

Professor Matthew Walker of Berkeley University certainly seems to think so. And, judging by the success of his internationally acclaimed book ‘Why We Sleep’, so do his readers.

Throughout the book, Walker encourages us to adopt a more balanced approach to life. He emphasizes the importance of post-prandial naps. He also discusses dreaming and siestas from a scientific point of view.

However, his ‘moderation running through the core of life’ doesn’t just stop there. It extends into all parts of being alive; work life, family, social activities, charity, diet and exercise.

In a way, professor Walker can be seen to share Erbology’s mission. We create every product in the hope that it will encourage people to consume in a more conscious and balanced way.

Why do we need our rest?

The science of sleep so fascinates scientific researchers that they have explored the field in even greater detail than those of sport and education.

International athletes value sleep as much as training, understanding its restorative powers. Academics also recognize the importance of a well-rested brain for optimal learning.

Not getting enough sleep produces, unsurprisingly, the opposite effect. Sleeping poorly on a regular basis puts you at risk of diseases such as obesity, heart disease and diabetes. It also shortens your overall life expectancy.(2)

Conventional knowledge also tells us that sleep is the state our brains enter into to rest; the opposite of active, daytime alertness.

The sleeping brain

But as Arianna Huffington explains, “the sleeping brain is feverishly busy, and the work that’s being done is as important as anything being done during the daytime. For example, it is during sleep that our brain clears toxic waste proteins – the kind associated with Alzheimer’s disease”(3).

Roughly one third of American adults suffer from long-term sleep deprivation.(2) Matthew Walker argues in his book that we are amid a ‘silent sleep loss epidemic’. According to him, this poses ‘the greatest public health challenge we face in the 21st century’.(3)

So, below are 3 key reasons we should be getting more sleep.

Why is sleep important?

"The sleeping brain is feverishly busy, and the work that’s being done is as important as anything being done during the daytime."

1. Sleep improves your physical health

It’s no secret that sleep is the ultimate side-effect-free physical enhancer.

Huffington says that it’s actually elite sports stars who are helping to break down the delusion that sleep deprivation is macho. “It’s exciting to see more and more world class athletes coming out of the burnout closer to talk openly about how embracing sleep helps them win on the court and in the field”.(4)

Michael Phelps, LeBron, Chris Hoy, and Shannon Miller all have strict habits when it comes to sleep. And the coaches and sleep specialists they employ are at the very pinnacle of physical science knowledge.

A study in 2017 conducted by University College, London, looked at how sleep deprivation affected university students. (A good test subject, given that they’re typically the most sleep-deprived of all of us!) The researchers found that after a night of no sleep, the students’ reaction times were slower. It also caused a spike in their systolic blood pressure after exercise. (Systolic blood pressure is the force your blood exerts against the walls of your arteries when your heart beats.)(5)

Put simply, disturbed sleep negatively affects your physical performance. And, while you might not be a professional athlete, this is still incredibly important in daily life. The speed of your reaction time while driving, for example, can make a huge difference when it comes to avoiding a potential collision.

2. It improves cognitive health, memory and mood

In 1959, New York DJ Peter Tripp promised millions of his listeners across the U.S that he would stay awake for 200 hours during what he called an “awakeathon”.

Minutes turned into hours and hours into days. Tripp, a man usually described as cheerful and upbeat, became increasingly agitated and unpleasant to be around. Towards the end of the awakeathon, he was causing considerable offence to even his closest friends. He even began exhibiting paranoid behaviors and signs of hallucination.(6)

Studies conducted in laboratory environments have produced remarkably similar results.

One study on mice found that a lack of sleep produced increased stress reactivity, anxiety and – alarmingly – ‘despair behavior’. Disrupting their REM sleep led to the mice exhibiting depressive behavior, too.(7)

Not only does a lack of sleep make you irritable, but it can affect your memory(8) and decision making too. Researchers found that sleep-deprived human participants had blunted reactions when they conducting a simple task the next day.

Sleep deprivation seems to be particularly problematic in the event of unexpected change, uncertainty, and the need to change plans flexibly. The team concluded that this finding had incredibly important implications in critical situations like disaster management and organising emergency responses.(9)

In short, getting a good night’s rest can help with mental performance. This is especially true when you need to be flexible and come up with new solutions quickly.

3. It helps you learn new things

Perhaps our friends, the University College London students, should try to get more sleep for another reason.

The part of the brain responsible for our ability to take in new information is called the hippocampus. This region of the brain is critical for the storage of new memories.

During sleep, the hippocampus transfers information from its ‘short-term storage’ to the longer-term home of the neocortex.(10). Various studies have shown that people are better able to recall newly formed memories after a period of sleep. Disrupted slow-wave sleep, on the other hand, leads to worse performance at basic memory tests.(10)

The hippocampus’s performance suffers significantly after just one night of interrupted sleep. This leads to sleep-deprived learners being unable to retain new information as they should.

So, if you’re a student, don’t pull an all-nighter. While you might be fine while you’re studying, the next day you’ll be able to take in less information. Get an early night instead, and you’ll wake up feeling refreshed and ready to hit the textbooks.

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