Of all the mysteries of human experience, sleep may be the most fascinating. If you were to ask someone to tell you the story of their life, they could speak of lessons and experiences that spanned decades. And yet that would only be little more than half of the time passed. In a life seventy-five years long, if you sleep eight hours day, that’s twenty-five years. By comparison, we may only spend about 177 days having sex. Which do you remember more vividly?
Seemingly distant and misunderstood, sleep makes up one of the most substantial experiences of our lives. But what role does it actually play? Why do we do it, other than because we get tired?
The human sleep cycle allows the body to restore it’s resource, boosting the immune system, increasing the efficiency of the nervous system and improving our structural and supportive anatomy. Sleep has also been found to play a vital role in the learning process, as well as psychological health in general. This may be due in part to the beneficial role sleep plays in the function of the endocrine system.
The Role of Sleep in Recovery
One of the ways in which sleep is believed to be beneficial in recovery. In response to illness or injury, sleep is thought by some to speed recovery time. While certain studies indicate that rest may not play a role healing following physical injury, there seems to be ample evidence of the benefits of sleep reparative role in brain health. Working together, Van Savage of Harvard Medical School and Geoffrey West of the Santa Fe Institute noticed an inverse correlation between body and sleep length. Smaller mammals, like rodents, may spend more than half the day asleep, while whales spend as little as two hours sleeping. Savage was quoted in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences saying: “Our data are consistent with the idea that sleep is primarily devoted to the critical activities of repair and reorganization in the brain, not the whole body, and that this reorganization probably includes learning and memory… This leads to the conclusion that other organs and tissues do not require an analogous state because they can be repaired or reorganized during waking or resting periods.”
In fact, sleep deprivation has a pronounced effect on cognitive functions. It’s been shown to compromise judgment, the ability to create and utilize memories or even function properly. Strangely enough, however, these symptoms may be worse when an individual is partly sleep-deprived rather than entirely sleep-deprived.
However, the benefits of getting enough sleep may not be all in your head.
Sleep and Weight Loss
Studies indicate that sleep deprivation may lead to an increased risk of obesity. This correlation has been attributed to the strains placed upon the endocrine system. Low levels of rest are linked to increases in leptin, the hormone the body produces which triggers hunger as well as a drop in ghrelin, the hormone that communicates a sense of fullness to the brain. In short, missing sleep makes you hungrier and without a sense of satisfaction.
Why does the body respond this way? It seems possible increased consumption may be a means of making up for the energy shortage. However, despite motivation, there does seem to be a clear correlation between sleep loss and weight gain.