Sleep is truly a curious thing that humans participate in. We live a large chunk of our life behind our eyelids, dreaming and laying immobile for hours at a time. With such an odd behavior, it is only natural to question it.
Questions like: why do you sleep, do you need to sleep, what are the downsides to not sleeping, what is the optimal amount of time to sleep, and much more are frequently searched questions.
This article aims to answer the most common questions about sleep and to get to the bottom of this objectively odd behavior that we naturally participate in.
Why do we sleep?
It comes to no surprise that the act of sleeping has captivated many of the greatest thinkers and academics for centuries.
One would think that such a heavy focus on sleep would give some concrete explanation as to why we sleep, but it still remains largely unknown. There are many theories and proven activities that occur during sleep, but is there a single purpose for sleep, or is it something that impacts a wide variety of human functions?
The answer as to why we sleep has taken such a long time to answer because it wasn't until the last century that the invention of medical tools that measure brain activity like the EEG, fMRI, and other technologies that could actually observe what was occurring in the brain during sleep. Much of the older works and theories relied on very detailed external observations and pure hypotheses.
Three of the more compelling arguments as to why we sleep include the evolutionary need to conserve energy, the brain plasticity theory, and theories that sleep is meant to restore the body in some capacity.
Do other animals need sleep?
The quick answer is yes. Nearly all animals sleep in some capacity, but the main difference is in the longevity and way they sleep. A great example is the sleep habits of a giraffe. Rather than laying down and staying motionless for eight hours like humans, giraffes sleep standing up and take small power naps throughout the day.
It is interesting that sleep is a fairly consistent quality across the animal kingdom. This observation is one of the key supporting factors to the energy conservation theory.
A counterpoint to this observation is a phenomenon found in a recent study at Harvard in June of 2020. The study looked at the true cause of death in flies that had been sleep deprived. The study found that the accumulation of reactive oxygen species in the gut of sleep deprived flies was the root cause. When treated with antioxidants, the sleep deprived flies were able to live a normal lifespan. This finding suggests that the need to restore vital molecules in the body could be the reasoning behind sleep.
Animal models are a great way to gain insights, but we are still a long way from understanding the complete need for sleep in humans.
With new research like that described above, fighting reactive oxygen species may hold future promise. MitoQ offers a targeted antioxidant punch while also helping support your mitochondrial function. In combination, these can reduce the threat of reactive oxygen species and free radicals and give your mitochondria the support they need to function at their peak.
What are the benefits of sleep?
You may not know the exact benefits of sleep, but you have most likely felt them when you get the perfect night’s sleep. You feel more energized, productive, and feel alert to take on the day. There is tons of research on the benefits of sleep and it can impact a large number of bodily functions.
While the reasoning as to why we sleep is not clear, the benefits of sleep are well-known. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, sleep is important to lower your risk of health complications, improve your mood, and to be more focused and alert.
How long can you go without sleep?
Going without sleep is dangerous and should not be attempted. With that being said, the answer to the question is that it is truly not known.
The longest recorded time for days gone without sleep is 264 hours. This record is held by Randy Gardner and was made in 1963. He pulled off the stunt as a part of his science project when he was 17 years old. After staying awake for 11 days, Gardner went to sleep for 14 hours and woke up like nothing had changed.
This fascinating case study offers some insight into the world of severe sleep deprivation. While it isn’t a definite answer to the question, it does give a look into the longest you could go without sleep and still be alive.
What are the side effects of lack of sleep?
Sleep deprivation is the term more commonly used to denote a willful lack of sleep.
According to the Sleep Foundation, symptoms of sleep deprivation include impaired cognitive function, poor memory, lack of energy, and changes to mood. These symptoms are alleviated once you catch up on your sleep.
While symptoms are short-lived, you may ask if there are any long term side effects to sleep deprivation. For sporadic bouts of sleep deprivation there is not a whole lot to be concerned about. Many side effects come about from chronic sleep deprivation.
According to the Sleep Foundation, a consistent lack of sleep can increase risk to cardiovascular health, inadequate blood sugar regulation, a weakened immune response, as well as mental health disorders.
How to get better sleep
If you are looking to improve your overall mood, productivity, and health, investing in your sleep is a great way to do it.
Falling asleep for some people means just laying down, while for others, falling asleep and staying asleep can be a constant struggle.
For those that struggle to get a good night’s sleep, it is worthwhile to invest time and energy to get your sleep where it needs to be.
One of the best ways to improve your overall sleep quality is to create a sleep routine. Within this routine you should go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day in addition to creating a morning and bedtime routine. The goal of these actions is to teach your body when it can sleep and when it should be awake. Over time, these habits will allow you to get a good night sleep.
Another way to get better sleep is to create the perfect sleeping environment. In practice this means that you should look to have your room be as dark, quiet, and peaceful as possible. Things you should avoid include bright screens of electronic devices, blaring music before going to bed, and turning on bright lights.
How much sleep should you be getting?
The amount of sleep each person needs varies significantly. Some people can thrive off of six hours of sleep while others can only function properly with ten.
This large variance makes it difficult to make a specific suggestion. The best way to determine minimum sleep you need is to test it out for yourself. Generally speaking however, seven to eight hours is considered the norm.
The amount of sleep you need also depends on your age. In general, the younger you are, the more sleep you need to function optimally.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, when you are a baby to about a preschooler, you will most likely require anywhere from 10 hours to 16 hours of sleep throughout the day. As a school-aged kid, this is slightly reduced to 9 to 12 hours, and the sleep typically is only required through the night. As a teenager, this figure continues its decline as you should be getting 8 to 10 hours of sleep.
In closing, sleep is still a mysterious phenomenon that continues to be a hot topic in research.
While the benefits of sleep and symptoms of deprivation are well known, the reason we sleep is still up for debate. There is still so much to learn about sleep and its function and we are finally turning the corner to a potential answer. Getting to see these discoveries unfold in real time is exciting.
Hopefully this article gave you a good basis to understand sleep better. With information presented in this article, you can understand why sleep is so important even though the scientific community is still working to understand the exact how and why.
If nothing else, there’s a chance you can impress your friends at trivia night by knowing the record holder for the longest time without sleep, and you can utilize the tips to getting better sleep to ensure you don’t end up staying awake for 11 days like Randy.
Reviewed by: Kai Man Yuen/ BSc., PGDipSci., MSc.