Why Do We Need Sleep Anyway?
Chugging a Red Bull and pulling an all-nighter before a big test may seem like a typical college experience, but it does nothing to promote a healthy lifestyle and a successful future. While intensive nocturnal reviews may seem productive, you may still find that you cannot recall everything you studied the night before. This is due to sleep’s natural purpose: to convert short-term memory into long-term memory by storing information in the brain’s long-term safe house—the hippocampus.
Statistically, your brain’s ability to store memory decreases by 40 percent after a night of no sleep, resulting in memory loss and the inability to retain new information. Herman Ebbinghaus’s “Forgetting Curve” hypothesis suggests that humans forget most new information within a few days, which stands testimony to the benefits of a good night’s sleep, as it’s one of the ways to consolidate what you learn. It helps to strengthen memories and aid in their retention. Studies have shown that sleep deprivation can lead to decreased memory retention, suggesting that adequate sleep is essential for flattening the Ebbinghaus forgetting curve.
The Dangers of Insomnia
Many often overlook sleep as a reset button that prepares your body for the next day. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, inadequate sleep is a public health epidemic. In 2019, they reported that 35 percent of Americans got less than seven hours of sleep. A lack of sleep not only makes you groggy but can also cause more serious health issues such as hypertension, heart attack, anxiety, depression, and infertility. Even getting just four hours of sleep a night will decrease your “natural killer cells”(NKC) by 70 percent— the NKC rid the body of potential malignant cancerous cells.
Insomnia can potentially suppress the body’s ability to fight off illness, disease, and infection. Results from a study outlined by The Journal of Experimental Medicine show that sleep has a profound influence on the body’s natural immunity function. Insufficient sleep reduces the number of white blood cells in the body, directly affecting the efficacy of the body’s immune function.
Finally, little or no sleep can potentially prove deadly for both the insomniac and others. In the CDC’s 2019 study on sleep, 5 percent of Americans reported falling asleep while driving. Furthermore, the US Department of Transport claims that 1500 Americans die each year due to drowsy driving; the impairment has been compared to drunk driving because of the driver’s lack of cognitive and motor functions behind the wheel. 
How Much Sleep Do We Need?
The amount of sleep each person needs depends on various physiological factors, including genetics, diet, sleep environment, bedding, and medications. The National Sleep Foundation tallies that children, on average, need nine to ten hours of sleep, while adults require seven to eight hours of rest to maintain equilibrium. But the amount of sleep is not always as important as the quality of sleep you achieve.
On average, your brain passes through four stages of sleep. The first three are categorized as “quiet sleep” or non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep. The fourth type of sleep is REM (Rapid eye movement) sleep, commonly called “active sleep.” The body uses NREM sleep to boost its immune system, develop bone and muscle, and heal damaged tissues. The deepest phase of your sleep is the REM and slow wave sleep, characterized by making memories and enhancing action and linguistic functions.
How to Get More Sleep
For those struggling with insomnia, it may seem impossible to find ways to get more sleep or even improve the sleep they do get. A simple and foolproof way of getting more sleep is cutting back on caffeine, especially before bedtime. Caffeine is a stimulant that can interfere with sleep. Even a small amount of caffeine can affect sleep quality, making it harder to fall and stay asleep. Caffeine can also reduce the amount of deep sleep and REM sleep you get, leaving you feeling tired and groggy the next day. The body readily absorbs caffeine, and the short-term effects often manifest between five and thirty minutes after consumption. These effects may include faster breathing and heartbeat, as well as heightened mental and physical attentiveness.
Another habit to nix is screen time before bed since it obstructs the release of melatonin, a hormone that makes you drowsy. Screen time can hinder melatonin production because of the blue light that is emitted. Blue light tricks the brain into thinking it is still daytime, making it harder to fall and stay asleep. A great way to limit screen time is to ditch your phone at least thirty minutes before you hit the pillow and grab a book instead. Or simply use blue light-blocking glasses or the warm light function on your phone that restricts blue light emission. Putting away the electronics before bed allows the body and eyes to remain relaxed, making it easier to fall asleep.
Akin to every new habit, changes to improve your sleep will require patience and practice, but once your sleep begins improving, so shall other aspects of your life. As students, we especially need to realize the importance of good sleep not only to ace our exams but also to ace our well-being.
Read more personal development related articles on Zealousness blog Personal Development – iN Education Inc. (ineducationonline.org)
- “Ebbinghaus’s Forgetting Curve.” MindTools. MindTools. Accessed February 4, 2023. https://www.mindtools.com/a9wjrjw/ebbinghauss-forgetting-curve.
- Irwin, M, A Mascovich, J C Gillin, R Willoughby, J Pike, and T L Smith. “Partial Sleep Deprivation Reduces Natural Killer Cell Activity in Humans.” Psychosomatic Medicine 56, no. 6 (November 1994): 493–98. https://doi.org/10.1097/00006842-199411000-00004.
- Liu, Yong, Ann G Wheaton, Daniel P Chapman, Timothy J Cunningham, Hua Lu, and Janet B Croft. “Prevalence of Healthy Sleep Duration among Adults – United States, 2014.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, August 25, 2017. https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/65/wr/mm6506a1.htm.
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- National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. “Drowsy Driving: Asleep at the Wheel.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, November 21, 2022. https://www.cdc.gov/sleep/features/drowsy-driving.html.
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