Author: Tommy Zhang
Editors: Galiba Anjum and Cynthia Zhang
Artist: Uzouf Baagil
By getting the proper amount of sleep, we ensure that we can function at our best throughout the day. It is ultimately essential to us in many, many other ways. For example, at night, we usually sleep to rest well to feel energetic the next day. During the day, we occasionally take short naps to improve our performance and alertness. On the other hand, for children, sleep is linked with brain development. However, research now indicates that in the world we currently live in, people are not getting enough sleep for a variety of reasons. Examples include trying to meet deadlines for work or school, shift working, using electronics before sleeping, caring for children, or medical conditions impeding sleep. As this problem becomes more significant in our daily lives, a question also arises: what happens when we don’t get enough sleep?
Before we can answer that question, there are a few things about sleep that need to be addressed. The first two are what happens when we sleep, and why is it essential that we sleep? When we close our eyes, we start at phase one, with the Non-Rapid Eye Movement (Non-REM) sleep, which constitutes three-quarters of the night. The first stage of Non-REM sleep is N1, the very short and light type of sleep, representing the line of being between barely awake and asleep. In this stage, the body prepares to enter the deeper stages of sleep. When our sleep reaches N2, the second stage of Non-REM sleep, we are beginning to sleep, instead of being stuck midway between asleep and awake. This phase tends to be the longest compared to N1 and N3. At this point, the body has become disengaged from our surroundings, breathing, and heart rate become normal, our body temperature drops, muscles become more relaxed, and the body prepares for deep sleep. N3, the third stage of the Non-REM sleep, is the deepest stage in the entirety of a full sleep cycle, where sleep demonstrates its importance. At N3, the body lowers breathing rate, drops blood pressure, fully relaxes muscles, and starts repairing the blood vessels and muscle tissues. The body also increases blood supply to muscles and releases hormones such as tissue growth hormones.
By the time N3 ends, the body finishes repairing itself, releasing hormones, restoring energy for the next day, and completing the Non-REM sleep phase. Next, we begin the shorter REM sleep phase, taking up about a quarter of our sleep time. REM sleep gets its name because of how the eyes underneath the eyelids rapidly dart back and forth during this stage. It is also where brain activity is higher than during Non-REM sleep and resembles brain activity during the day. Dreams occur while we are in REM, so scientists believe this is where the brain consolidates procedural memories, a type of long-term memory involved with remembering motor skills. A complete sleep cycle ends with REM sleep. This cycle repeats about 3 or 4 more times during the night before waking up feeling energetic and well-rested for a productive new day.
It is also important to know the ideal times and length of sleep. Ideally, our biological tendencies gravitate towards accommodating the sunset and sunrise, which involves sleeping early and waking early; this explains why people tend to feel more tired after sundown. However, we all know that the truth is far from that. Instead of letting the biological tendencies take over, the brain uses something called the circadian rhythm. Functioning much like a clock, the circadian rhythm is the natural sleep-wake schedule that tells us when we should be most tired and most “awake.” In addition, the circadian rhythm is also in charge of setting our natural bedtime and waking time. The best time to sleep varies from people to people, and we usually consider two different things when deciding our bedtime —when we should wake up, and the amount of sleep needed. Although there isn’t a recommended wake time, since every person’s wake time is influenced by factors unique to them, there is a recommended amount of sleep for each age group by the CDC shown in the graph below.
Well, what happens if we don’t get enough sleep? Some symptoms of sleepiness include drowsiness during the day, the inability to focus on a given task, moodiness, and poor decision making. Long-term sleep deprivation can deprive our body’s natural abilities to repair itself during injury or disease, which may result in releasing too little or too many hormones, or producing ludicrous antibodies. Sleep-deprived people are more prone to cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, high stress, and obesity. A sleep-deprived person is also much more likely to get sleep-related medical conditions such as sleep apnea (which interrupts breathing at night), narcolepsy (sudden sleep attacks at random times throughout the day), and sleep bruxism (excessive grinding of teeth at night). Furthermore, since the brain releases more stress hormones when a person is sleep-deprived, they have a higher risk of mental illnesses like depression, anxiety, and psychosis.
In summary, in our fast-paced society, the issue sleep deprivation is so prevalent but often overlooked . Sticking to a consistent sleep schedule, limiting daytime naps, and refraining from using electronics right before bedtime are all very helpful steps we can take to ensure a good night of sleep, and a healthier body.
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