The majority of us spend about a third of our lives asleep. While this may seem unproductive, sleep is an essential part of life. While you sleep your body is actually quite active. Many essential functions take place that could never happen while awake. Good healthy sleep therefore is essential to a good healthy waking life.

While in REM sleep, one of the deepest stages, blood flow to the brain increases. During this time we dream and research shows high levels of activity in the parts of the brain that process memory and emotion. Stay up all night cramming for an exam and you’re likely to be relying on short term memory to remember facts, but get a full night’s rest and much of what you’ve experienced during the day gets processed into long-term memory. It probably goes without saying that sleep is also a time for mental rest. Even though the brain remains active in sleep, it performs a sort of reset that decreases stress levels, relieving anxiety, agitation and depression.

During the day we expend large amounts of energy moving about and performing activities. Stress hormones like adrenaline are high. This is a catabolic state, meaning that there is more breakdown occurring than not. At night our stress hormones drop and growth hormones increase. While asleep, we start a rejuvenating process, building muscle and bone, repairing tissues that have taken damage during the day. Sleep is therefore important for more effective workouts and body-building exercises. It also lends truth to the phrase ‘beauty sleep’, as your skin also takes this time to heal from wear and tear experienced in the day.

I often recommend to people fighting illness to drink plenty of fluids and get adequate rest. In fact, you’ll often hear me say that time and sleep are the two best medicines out there. Our immune systems produce infection fighting proteins that circulate at higher levels when asleep. TNF (Tumor Necrosis Factor), a naturally occurring cancer fighting protein has been shown to be significantly reduced in those individuals who routinely stay up. Also, the TNF those individuals did have was far less effective.

Good healthy sleep therefore is essential to a good healthy waking life.

A research study performed by Harvard doctors found that short naps (about 30 min) in the midday could reduce the risk of heart attacks in men by as much as a third. This was more true for working men than those who stayed home and weren’t active.

Not all sleep is healthy sleep, however. Some people suffer from unrestful sleep which can be a sign of a sleep disorder. Too much sleep can also have the opposite effect of many of the points mentioned above. If you are having difficulty with sleep, bring up the topic with your doctor. It’s too important a point to neglect. North Country Hospital has an excellent sleep center that specializes in treating sleep disorders. You can also tune in to our next article which will continue on the topic of sleep health and have some tips for better sleep.

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