Sleep has long been a bit of a mystery; what happens to our bodies when we sleep, how sleep occurs and even why we sleep aren’t fully understood. The effects of not enough sleep however are quite apparent, with even the smallest disruptions to our slumber resulting in loss of concentration, diminished reaction times, inability to fully control our emotions and even physical illness. While the long term effects on humans of not getting enough sleep aren’t known due to the ethical considerations associated with depriving subjects of sleep for vast stretches of time, consistent lack of refreshing sleep has been linked to dementia and even eventual death. But what is actually happening to our bodies while we sleep, and how does this affect us when our sleep hasn’t been sufficient?
To understand the importance of sleep to our bodies, we need to understand how restorative sleep occurs. During the night we go through two distinct phases of sleep known as REM (rapid eye movement) and non-REM sleep. As we fall asleep we are in the lighter, non-REM stages of sleep in which our DNA is repaired and our heart rate and brain waves slow down. After 90 or so minutes of this, we transition into deeper REM sleep. Entering REM cycles every 90-120 minutes throughout the night, each stint of REM sleep progressively becomes longer, during which a myriad things are happening; the blood supply to our tissues increases, our energy is restored, waste proteins are cleared from our brains and hormones are released to assist in muscle repair and development, to regulate our appetites and to make us feel alert upon waking. Without enough quality sleep, our bodies suffer a host of negative physiological effects.
Our bodies are entirely made up of different proteins, which our cells are constantly folding into the right three dimensional structures to do their respective jobs. One theory about what happens as we get tired, focuses on the effect a need for sleep has on our cells. When we are running low on energy, our cells can no longer correctly fold proteins and they clump together, building up like debris inside our bodies and brains. This makes our thoughts clouded and diminishes cellular function. While we sleep, the waves in our brains change to higher, slower delta waves known as “sleep spindles”. These waves act as cleaners, washing away these misshapen proteins from our cells, leaving us fresher in the morning.
REM sleep is thought to play a large role in converting short term memories into long term ones. While the different brain waves of sleep allow us to clean out our cells, they also allow us to learn and remember. While we sleep, these restorative brain waves wash away unnecessary memories and thoughts, such as what you had for lunch and insignificant things you saw during the day. When this happens, memories you have flagged as important, and things you have worked to learn (like practicing an instrument) become clearer, as they are no longer competing for space in your brain. This is why it is often better to go to bed and start fresh in the morning rather than staying up all night to cram for an exam, as your mind will literally be clearer upon waking.
While humans can survive for long stretches of time without sleep, our bodies only work to their optimum levels when they’ve had enough time to shut down and refresh. In order to learn successfully, have a strong memory and for our overall brain health, it’s a good idea to ensure you are getting a solid night’s sleep.
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