Sleep is a required part of all our lives however for something so important, it would appear that we know very little about it. I decided to investigate and the following are some interesting facts on the subject which may even help us all sleep more easily at night.
Many of our discoveries had to wait until the invention of devices such as the electroencephalogram (EEG), which allowed for Alfred Loomis and his team to identify five distinct levels of sleep in 1937 by identifying different states of brain activity.
The next notable finding was by William Dement, Nathaniel Kleitman and Eugean Aserinsky in 1953 who observed rapid eye movements (REM) during the fifth stage of sleep connected with a dramatic change in brain activity, dividing the five stages into REM and Non-REM sleep.
Much of the research over the following decades was based on this foundation. Indeed these findings alone began to raise questions of what was going on while we were asleep as the brain activity during REM sleep was strikingly similar to the brain activity of someone who was wide awake.
This brings into question the relationship between sleep and rest. While the metabolism has been shown to slow by up to 10%, some research has found that hibernating animals come out of their state of hibernation to sleep, increasing their metabolism. While we all know we'll feel better after a good night sleep it appears we need it for more than just a rest.
Scientists are still working to find a definitive answer but we have discovered many reasons as to why sleep is important. A good night's sleep has been linked with a functioning immune system, good concentration, reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and it allows your body to clean out waste from the brain.
Furthermore, scientists have also been conducting research uncovering how we use sleep to organise and store the plethora of information that we encounter on a day to day basis. With some research suggesting that we might spend a varying amount of time in REM vs Non-REM sleep depending on the type of tasks we've been doing throughout the day.
With all these benefits alone a good sleep is important and even more so for children who need sleep for their development. While a bad sleep might leave a child grumpy the next day, continued bad sleep may even lead to behavioural problems later in life. Children can need as much as 18hrs of sleep when they're infants and come down to about an average of eight and a half hours for adolescents.
Adults on the other hand need an average from between seven to nine hours of sleep and this continues to diminish slightly as we age. Recent research has linked genetic variations that directly appear to affect the amount of sleep required by an adult.
Getting eight or so hours of sleep is great but there are hours when we get better sleep. You may have heard of the term Circadian Rhythm in relation to your body clock before, you may have also heard how our bodies use the sun to set this internal clock. Further studies have shown that it is more than just the light that informs our body clock. The temperature of your body is also important and among other aspects is used to discern when it's time to sleep and potentially how far away sunrise is.
Research has also found that there indeed are such a things as "night owls" and "morning people" (Larks) with variations of up to two hours earlier and two hours later than average of when people are most alert much of this is closely linked with the rise and fall of the bodies core temperature.
What happens when I don't get enough sleep? Apart from being somewhat moodier and having reduced concentration, scientists have also observed what has been termed as "sleep debt". The sleep you miss out on has to be made up somewhere. The exact mechanics are still being investigated with some theories suggesting that it relates to your average amount of sleep compared to the average you should be getting while others suggest that for every hour of sleep you miss, it's an hour we will have to make up later.
Researchers have also found that you should think twice before having a drink to help you nod off since although the alcohol is a depressant it has been linked with a reduction in REM Sleep, reducing the quality of sleep. Furthermore sleeping drugs should only be used under medical advice as they can also reduce the quality of sleep and can potentially make it harder to sleep later on.
This only scratches the surface of the research that is now being carried out investigating the fascinating activity of sleep. Already this has led to dramatic changes in our understanding of what is "normal sleep" and how we can facilitate healthy sleeping patterns. It is incredible to see the multifaceted, complicated and beautiful creation that sleep is.
Sam Gillespie is a composer, programmer and PhD candidate at the University of New South Wales.Sam Gillespie's previous articles may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/sam-gillespie.html