Why We Sleep

I think I could learn a lot from my cats. They are very committed to sleep. It’s one of their primary occupations, and they seem to sleep peacefully, contentedly, atop my printer, in their foodbowl, on my pillow…wherever they feel like it, really. If I were more like them, I’d put a hammock in my office and take naps whenever I felt like it. Then again, my cats don’t have jobs. This is what they do all day:

I’m advocating for more of a balanced approach to sleep than my cats seem to take, but I think maybe they’re right to make sleep a priority (perhaps a simpler decision when your only other priorities are Fancy Feast and hunting an elusive green toy mouse throughout the house). The more I read about sleep, the more I think that it’s immensely undervalued in contemporary America. We’re so much more aware of things we shouldn’t do (smoking, drinking, eating too much sugar) and so much less aware of the things we really should be doing to increase our own health. I heard a top researcher announce in a meeting today that she accomplishes so much (big grants, major publications) by “never sleeping.” Said with caffeine in hand. “If I could take it in by IV, I would,” she said. And she’s not alone. Are we doing this to ourselves because we don’t understand how terrible it is? Or because we feel like we have to? Is it that we don’t really understand sleep or its functions at all?

One big question researchers still haven’t answered is “why do we sleep in the first place?” What function does it serve for our bodies? I started reading up on this fascinating subject on Harvard’s Healthy Sleep site. Here are some of the better supported theories on sleep:

  1. Sleep rejuvenates us. It’s when our bodies grow muscle, repair tissues, and build proteins.
  2. Sleep has important immune functions. In fact, animals that aren’t allowed to sleep at all lose their immune function and die in a matter of WEEKS.
  3. Sleep increases our alertness by allowing our brains to clear adenosine, which builds up during waking hours (except when we take in caffeine, which blocks adenosine; hence the researcher’s comments above, and my own serious coffee addiction).
  4. Sleep is related to neuroplasticity – it’s when our neurons rebuild and reorganize themselves. It’s how babies’ brains grow and our own brains build new pathways and organize them to be more efficient.

Perhaps most compelling, the Harvard site includes a quote:

“As with eating well, good sleep is a staple of optimal health.”

I don’t think we think of it that way at all. In fact, I think it’s the staple we’re most likely to ignore. But one week into this sleep project, I’m getting more done. I feel so much better. Less grumpy, less tired, less hungry for weird foods. I feel healthier, and happier, and that’s why I sleep!

This next week, I’m going to start really limiting my caffeine in the afternoon (after 4 instead of after 6, as I had been doing) and limiting my exposure to bright lights within an hour or two of bedtime (no late night computer use!) to try to improve the quality of my sleep and make it easier to fall asleep when I get into bed. I’ll be posting about how it goes! But I’m wondering – are we all living this way? Do as few Americans (and others) get enough sleep as the research indicates?

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