What is sleep?
Rather than the passive process we’ve often thought sleep to be, it’s actually a highly active process. The brain and all the major organs function actively in different ways while we sleep. In fact, in certain stages of sleep, the brain is more active than when it’s awake!
Probably it’s obvious, but the effect of the sleeping process is—or should be—that we feel recharged physically and mentally after a long period of mostly uninterrupted rest.
Why do you sleep?
It’s harder to confirm the reasons behind why we sleep because researchers are still making discoveries in this arena. However, there are some theories which could sensibly explain the purpose of sleep:
- We sleep to allow the body to recover from a day’s worth of stress
- We sleep to allow the brain to consolidate all the information it has processed during the day
- We sleep to “recharge the battery”
- We sleep to deep clean the central nervous system
- Human beings have several “drives” which allow us to survive from day to day, including not only drives for thirst, sex, and hunger, but sleep
- The brain requires sleep to remain “plastic” or flexible to process new stimuli
What happens if you don’t sleep well?
If we do not receive good quality sleep on a regular basis, our general physical health can be compromised over time. Listed below are just some of the things that can happen to the human body when it doesn’t get the quality sleep it needs to function.
- Cognitive functions such as judgment, multitasking, decision-making, and performance can slip, leading to vehicle or personal accidents of all kinds
- Learning ability and memory can lose functionality
- Sex drive can decrease
- Hunger drive can increase
- Depression and anxiety can develop
- The skin can lose its color, tone, and elasticity prematurely
- Odds for developing significant chronic health conditions can increase exponentially
- Energy needed to perform activities of daily living can be seriously reduced
- Mood swings and general irritability can increase
- Physical efforts can be diminished
- Physical recovery from illness and injury can be delayed
- Amounts of human growth hormone (HGH), necessary to good health, can become severely deficient
- Metabolism can slow down
- Pain can become difficult to tolerate
- Inflammation can be more difficult to treat
- Immune system function can become compromised
- Chronic illness can result (diabetes, hypertension, heart failure, kidney disease and more)
And yes, eventually, your systems will fail and you will die if you go for days on end without sleep.
Sleep is not optional for human health; it is as critical to daily function as drinking water, eating nutritious food, and getting adequate amounts of exercise.
What happens if you don’t sleep enough?
Just like sleep quality, if you don’t get the proper quantity of sleep, you become sleep deprived. If this happens, day after day, you develop what is known as sleep debt.
Any time you sleep less than the recommended amount for your age group, you are sleep deprived. If it’s just one night, you may not notice a change in your physical, emotional, or cognitive function, or if you do, it is easily repaired with a quick nap or extra sleep the following night.
Regular sleep loss can lead to chronic sleep deprivation. This becomes more of an issue for people because the more sleep deprived they become, the less they are able to discern the physical, emotional, or cognitive dysfunctions that are caused by sleep loss.
Long-lasting sleep deprivation (over weeks, months, or years) accumulates into a condition known as sleep debt.
An accumulation of ongoing sleep deprivation is considered sleep debt. Sleep debt is very hard to make up. Many people have accumulated sleep debt over the entire course of their lives and no amount of extra sleep will be able to repair it entirely.
People with significant sleep debt may be able to make major adjustments to their sleep schedules, following the advice of a sleep physician, in order to prevent it from getting worse. These adjustments include sleep habits and sleep hygiene issues, as well as making job changes in order to reset the circadian system.
However, reducing sleep debt may require heroic effort, so it is considered far more beneficial to avoid it in the first place. Avoiding sleep debt is essential if you wish to live a healthy life into old age.
The long-term problem with sleep debt is that it opens up the body to chronic health problems, which are also extremely hard to treat and may be impossible to cure. Other problems with daytime sleepiness, cognitive function, and health issues may become permanent.
Who might be prone to sleep disorders?
Despite common wisdom, it is inaccurate to suggest that only older, male, overweight individuals, or people with emotional problems, are more likely to have sleep problems.
Anyone can have a sleep disorder. Infants and children can and do suffer from sleep disorders. Even healthy, fit people can have sleep disorders.
Sleep disorders have multiple root causes:
- imbalances in body and/or brain chemistry
- crowded airway physiology
- other coexisting medical conditions
- drug interactions and/or side effects
- lifespan-related processes like adolescence, pregnancy, and menopause
- mental health issues
- poor management of stress
- genetics (some sleep disorders and sleep habits tend to run in families)
The good news is that 100 percent of sleep problems are treatable, and many are preventable.
How can you find out if you have a sleep disorder?
Follow this protocol to discover any issues you might have with sleep:
Keep a sleep diary
You can do this using a smartphone app or a simple pen and paper journal. Include:
- bedtimes and rise time
- information about consumption of food, water, caffeine products, alcohol
- lists and dosages of medications with time and frequency taken
- use of nicotine products, marijuana, and other recreational drugs
- details about emotional or physical upsets during the day which might impact sleep
- daily symptoms that you think might be related to poor sleep
- accidents or other incidences which might be traced to a sleep problem
- information given to you by loved ones and/or sleep partners such as breathing, talking, or movement behaviors while asleep
Be vigilant about updating this journal daily for at least two weeks. Then,
Talk to your primary care physician
Show them your sleep diary. Discuss your concerns. You will need their referrals for any kind of investigation into your sleep problems. Then,
Follow your doctor’s lead
You might be asked to participate in a home- or lab-based sleep test. You might be asked to have other tests done, or visit other specialists, including pulmonologists, ear-nose-throat specialists, or psychiatrists. You may be asked to switch up some medications or work more closely with your pharmacist to avoid drug interactions or side effects which might be part of the problem. Then,
Follow through on all tests
This is critical! It seems obvious, but if you don’t complete these tests, your doctors won’t be able to identify and diagnoses your sleep problems and, therefore, won’t be able to suggest and prescribe treatments to help you. You will need a doctor’s prescription for nearly every sleep-related treatment out there, not just for medications, but for alternative therapies and medical equipment. Finally,
Adhere to your treatment plan
Work closely with your doctors to make sure you get all its benefits. If you struggle with compliance, ask for help. There are lots of tips and tricks for making therapies like CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) or bright light treatment work for you, for instance.
What can you do to improve your sleep habits?
Sleep hygiene is the first place to start. SHC has covered this topic extensively on the SLEEP HYGIENE page.