How Important is Sleep?

Do you frequently feel sleepy throughout the day? Do you doze off soon after you sit down? Do you feel “restored” when you wake up in the morning? How much sleep is REALLY needed and how important is it? Let’s take a look…

The short answer is that sleep is REALLY important! Prior to the 1950s, most authorities thought sleep was just a passive, dormant part of life. However, we’ve come to appreciate that our brains are quite active during sleep, and sleep quality affects our daily functioning and our physical and mental health in ways we’re JUST beginning to understand!

There are five phases of sleep: stage 1-4 and REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. These stages occur in that order creating distinctly different brain wave patterns. We spend about 50% of our sleep in stage two sleep, about 20% in REM sleep, and about 30% in the other stages (this varies with age).

We sleep much lighter in the early stages (one and two) of sleep—meaning it’s easy to be woken up by noises or other disturbances. Sleep is much deeper during stages three and four (called delta wave sleep) and if something manages to disturb these stages of sleep, you’ll find yourself groggy and disoriented for the first couple minutes upon waking. REM sleep includes rapid, irregular breathing, increased heart rate and blood pressure, and this is often when bizarre, illogical dreams occur.

Infants need require about sixteen hours of sleep, teenagers need nine hours, and adults should sleep seven to eight hours a night (more during pregnancy). Too little sleep leads to “sleep debt,” which must eventually be re-paid. Though we can function on little sleep for a while, our judgment, reaction time, and other functions are impaired. If you feel drowsy during the day, experts say you haven’t had enough sleep, which unfortunately has become the norm in our society!

There are MANY studies that make it clear that sleep deprivation is DANGEROUS! Sleep deprived drivers may be as unsafe on the road as drunk drivers. In fact, experts estimate driver fatigue plays a role in about 100,000 car wrecks and 1,500 deaths each year in the Unites States alone—which is probably a conservative estimate!

While we are still trying to figure out WHY sleep is so important, animal studies show that rats will die within three weeks when they are deprived of sleep and within five weeks if they’re only deprived of REM sleep.

Bottom line: getting enough quality sleep each night is important for maintaining your mental and physical health.

Dr. James Sheehan Dr. James Sheehan is an expert in the treatment of neck and back pain.

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