Benefits of Sleep
It may seem obvious that sleep is beneficial. Even without fully grasping what sleep does for us, we know that going without sleep for too long makes us feel terrible, and that getting a good night's sleep can make us feel ready to take on the world.
Scientists have gone to great lengths to fully understand sleep's benefits. In studies of humans and other animals, they have discovered that sleep plays a critical role in immune function, metabolism, memory, learning, and other vital functions. The features in this section explore these discoveries and describe specific ways in which we all benefit from sleep.
Although scientists aren't entirely sure why we sleep, they have many ideas about the functions of this mysterious part of our lives. While some of these functions may have deep evolutionary roots, others, such as sleep's potential role in memory and health, seem particularly relevant to life in the 21st century.
While we may not often think about why we sleep, most of us acknowledge at some level that sleep makes us feel better. We feel more alert, more energetic, happier, and better able to function following a good night of sleep. However, the fact that sleep makes us feel better and that going without sleep makes us feel worse only begins to explain why sleep might be necessary.
One way to think about the function of sleep is to compare it to another of our life-sustaining activities: eating. Hunger is a protective mechanism that has evolved to ensure that we consume the nutrients our bodies require to grow, repair tissues, and function properly. And although it is relatively easy to grasp the role that eating serves— given that it involves physically consuming the substances our bodies need—eating and sleeping are not as different as they might seem.
Both eating and sleeping are regulated by powerful internal drives. Going without food produces the uncomfortable sensation of hunger, while going without sleep makes us feel overwhelmingly sleepy. And just as eating relieves hunger and ensures that we obtain the nutrients we need, sleeping relieves sleepiness and ensures that we obtain the sleep we need.
What difference could an extra hour of sleep make in your life?
Maybe quite a lot, experts say. Studies show that the gap between getting just enough sleep and getting too little sleep may affect your health, your mood, your weight, and even your sex life. If you're getting less than the recommended seven or eight hours of sleep a night, here are four reasons that you should shut down your computer, turn off the lights, and go to bed an hour early tonight.
1. Better health. Getting a good night's sleep won't grant you immunity from disease. But study after study has found a link between insufficient sleep and some serious health problems, such as heart disease, heart attacks, diabetes, and obesity.In most cases, the health risks from sleep loss only become serious after years. That might not always be true, however. One study simulated the effects of the disturbed sleep patterns of shift workers on 10 young healthy adults. After a mere four days, three of them had blood glucose levels that qualified as pre-diabetic.
2. Better sex life. According to a poll conducted by the National Sleep Foundation, up to 26% of people say that their sex lives tend to suffer because they're just too tired. There's evidence that in men, impaired sleep can be associated with lower testosterone levels -- although the exact nature of the link isn't clear.Of course, not getting enough sleep can affect your love life in less direct ways too. "If you're a 28-year-old who's so exhausted you're falling asleep during a date at the movies, that's not good," says Ronald Kramer, MD, a spokesperson for the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and a specialist at the Colorado Sleep Disorders Center in Englewood, Colo.
3. Less pain. If you have chronic pain -- or acute pain from a recent injury -- getting enough sleep may actually make you hurt less. Many studies have shown a link between sleep loss and lower pain threshold. Unfortunately, being in pain can make it hard to sleep.Researchers have found that getting good sleep can supplement medication for pain. If pain is keeping you up at night, there are also medications available that combine a pain reliever with a sleep aid.
4. Lower risk of injury. Sleeping enough might actually keep you safer. Sleep deprivation has been linked with many notorious disasters, like the destruction of the space shuttle Challenger and the grounding of the Exxon Valdez. The Institute of Medicine estimates that one out of five auto accidents in the U.S. results from drowsy driving -- that's about 1 million crashes a year.Of course, any kind of accident is more likely when you're exhausted, says Jodi A. Mindell, PhD, a professor of psychology at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia and author of Sleep Deprived No More. "When you're overtired, you're more likely to trip, or fall off a ladder, or cut yourself while chopping vegetables," she says. "Household accidents like that can have serious consequences."
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