Why is it that I need to sleep anyway?
Many of us have found ourselves in the midst of an important task, enjoying the simple pleasures of life, pressed for time, or convinced that we have all the time in the world at our fingertips when, slowly but surely – fatigue sets in, our minds seem to grow slow, and our eyes threaten to flutter shut. At this point we may ask ourselves:
Why is it that I need to sleep anyway? In all seriousness, what’s the big deal?
For years, we’ve understood that sufficient amounts of sleep are paramount to our success! Sleep is critical to our ability to exercise the full extent our cerebral function – or in simpler terms, to think with optimum clarity, focus, and creativity.
However, it was only as recently as 2013 that a study conducted at the University of Rochester offered direct insights into precisely why our brains require sleep. The answer? Call it ‘evening cleaning’, if you will. An article published the World Economic Forum articulates, “The study found that when you sleep your brain removes toxic proteins from its neurons that are by-products of neural activity when you’re awake”.
A similar work published by the National Institute of Health summarizes the process as thus: while you sleep, “a plumbing system called the glymphatic system may open, letting fluid flow rapidly through the brain” – purging itself of toxic buildup.
Ahh, so here it is – the reason for all this fuss about sleep: “to flush waste products from the brain.” Let’s call it a restart button! A recharging phase! A revitalizing activity critical to our well-being!
What does missing sleep mean for the mind and body?
So now we understood all the good sleep can do for us, but what if we find ourselves missing out on this oh-so-necessary sleep? Losing sleep presents a threat to the health and function of both our minds and bodies in numerous ways. “Skipping sleep impairs your brain function across the board. It slows your ability to process information and problem solve, kills your creativity, and catapults your stress levels and emotional reactivity”.
There also exist a host of studies intimating the relationship between sleep deprivation and heart attacks, strokes, type II diabetes, obesity, lower testosterone in men, compromised immune systems, and even premature aging. The accumulation of these toxins in the brain is also identified among the underlying causes of Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative disorders.
About how much sleep do we really need?
The answer to this question varies from person to person, but for most adults the answer is somewhere between seven and nine hours of sleep each night.
How can we take action?
Travis Bradberry, the president of TalentSmart (an organization recognized for its emotional intelligence measures and training programs) offers key tips for achieving better sleep.
- Contrary to popular belief: avoid sleeping pills
- Cut the caffeine around noon
- Avoid blue light in the evening (like that emitted from our electronic devices)
- Create a regular sleep schedule – and stick to it!
- Know how much sleep you need (on the 7-9 hour spectrum)
- No work before bed – emails included
- Absolutely desperate? Take a brief nap.
 Travis Bradberry, Travis. “Lack of sleep is killing your productivity. Here’s how to fix it.” World Economic Forum. March 6, 2017. Accessed June 15, 2017. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2017/03/not-getting-enough-sleep-is-killing-your-productivity-this-is-what-you-can-do-about-it.
 “Brain may flush out toxins during sleep.” National Institutes of Health. September 17, 2015. Accessed June 15, 2017. https://www.nih.gov/news-events/news-releases/brain-may-flush-out-toxins-during-sleep.
 Nedergaard, Maiken. “Study that Shows How Brain Cleans Itself While We Sleep Honored by AAAS.” Study that Shows How Brain Cleans Itself While We Sleep Honored by AAAS – Newsroom – University of Rochester Medical Center. February 12, 2015. Accessed June 15, 2017. https://www.urmc.rochester.edu/news/story/4254/study-that-shows-how-brain-cleans-itself-while-we-sleep-honored-by-aaas.aspx.
 “Lack of sleep is killing your productivity. Here’s how to fix it.” World Economic Forum.