Sleep is such a commonplace reality of life, and it seems surprising that doctors and scientists still have few definitive answers as to why we sleep. One thing we do know—we need sleep in order to properly function. If we don’t sleep, we get sleepy. Our concentration and energy diminishes. We may become irritable. We may grab another cup of coffee, in hopes of caffeine-induced energy or alertness. Or we may take a nap.
While we sleep, our bodies are active at muscle repair, memory consolidation, and releasing hormones that regulate growth and appetite (National Sleep Foundation, “What Happens When You Sleep?”). This happens during 90 minute cycles of REM (rapid eye movement) and non-REM sleep. The National Sleep Foundation says, “The one-third of our lives that we spend sleeping, far from being ‘unproductive,’ plays a direct role in how full, energetic, and successful the other two-thirds of our lives can be.”
Two things sleep experts (American slang calls them “sleepologists”) agree upon are that sleep is essential for human well being and that a great number of Americans, especially American teens, are sleep deprived.
There are fairly obvious effects of lack of sleep (such as those illustrated above), as well as many other less-apparent effects. Researchers have found sleep deprivation to affect
Cognitive impairment and Impaired moral judgment
Decreased ability to pay attention and remember new information
Increased risk of psychiatric conditions, such as depression or substance abuse
Symptoms similar to ADHD
Impaired immune system
Increased risk of diabetes and heart problems
Risk of obesity
Sleep needs vary by age and lifestyle, but on average adolescents (age 10-17) need 8.5-9.25 hours per night, and adults need 7-9 hours. Research has found, though, that even more important than the optimal amount of sleep is when that sleep occurs. The typical adolescent and college practice of staying up until the early morning hours and then sleeping in late, although it may provide 8 or 9 hours of sleep is actually less effective at providing needed rest. The human body has a natural “circadian rhythm,” creating times during which we are biologically programmed to be more sleepy. This rhythm creates optimal sleep times, for adults typically between approximately 9pm and 7am.
The amount of sleep we individually need each night for optimal performance is referred to as our “basal sleep need.” However, loss of sleep because of sickness, our busy schedules, or poor sleep habits can lead to a “sleep debt.” This sleep debt is believed to accumulate over time, leading to those mornings when you still feel sleepy even though you got a good night’s sleep. It is believed that we can work off our sleep debt by maintaining healthy sleep habits.
The National Sleep Foundation offers several “sleep tips,” to help achieve healthier sleep:
Stick to the same bedtime and wake up time, even on the weekends.
Practice a relaxing bedtime ritual.
Avoid naps, especially in the afternoon.
Create a sleep-conducive environment that is dark, quiet, comfortable and cool.
Sleep on a comfortable mattress and pillows.
Use bright light to help manage your natural sleep rhythms—Expose yourself to sunlight in the morning and avoid bright light in the evening.
Keep ‘sleep stealers’ out of the bedroom – avoid watching TV, using a computer or reading in bed.
Wind down at the end of your day with a calming activity such as reading.
Finish eating at least 2-3 hours before your regular bedtime.
Avoid caffeine and alcohol products close to bedtime and give up smoking.
They conclude, “Most importantly, make sleep a priority. You must schedule sleep like any other daily activity, so put it on your “to-do list” and cross it off every night. But don’t make it the thing you do only after everything else is done – stop doing other things so you get the sleep you need” (“How Much Sleep Do We Really Need?”).
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
How much of a priority do you place on sleep? How important do you think sleep is to your health and wellbeing?
How do you respond to being tired and not well-rested? What effect does this have on your life, if any?
With busy lifestyles, sleep often falls toward the bottom of the priority list for many. How can we help youth learn good habits now, even in an issue like sleep?
Sleep is an essential part of our health and wellbeing. Because of this, we should make sleep a priority and part of our daily schedule.
Practicing bad sleep habits can lead to serious—and potentially dangerous—health and behavioral problems.
For more information on sleep, take a look at the National Sleep Foundation’s website. They have a particularly helpful article for youth called “Teens and Sleep.”