“People say, 'I'm going to sleep now,' as if it were nothing. But it's really a bizarre activity. 'For the next several hours, while the sun is gone, I'm going to become unconscious, temporarily losing command over everything I know and understand. When the sun returns, I will resume my life.'"
- George Carlin
George Carlin was right.
Funny thing, this sleep, isn't it.
Every once in a while I can't help but wonder about it. We spend over 30 percent of our lives asleep. That is a huge amount of time devoted to activity which at the first glance seems useless and even dangerous. We're not only doing nothing while we sleep, but we are also completely unaware of our surroundings. Anything can happen while we're asleep and we won't even know it. We can get attacked, killed, our house can burn down or we can inhale poisonous gas and die. All while we're asleep.
Why would Mother Nature put us in such a predicament?
I don't know and I don't think anybody knows. One thing is for sure: sleep is just as important as food and water. All we have to do is go without sleep for a day and see what happens. Hunger and thirst are two most powerful forces and so is our need for sleep. We suffer when we are forced to stay awake in a similar fashion to the way we suffer when we are hungry or thirsty. And we get sick if we do it too often.
But why is sleep this important?
As it turns out there are few theories but no single good answer. The first thought that comes to my mind when I think about sleep is that this is our body's way of physical rest. On closer examination though, it's not that simple. None of our organs completely rest during sleep, although they do work at lesser levels than during our waking time. Certain areas of our brain on the other hand, are more active during sleep. And if all we needed was a physical rest then why not just lie down and rest? Why should we completely power down?
While I don't know why we should power down, amazing things happen when we do. First and foremost, sleep regenerates brain function, more specifically, our thinking and memory. We think and remember much better after a good night of snoozing. It's almost like our brain is a giant battery, completely self sufficient and it recharges during sleep. I think that is interesting to ponder all on its own. Life is truly a perplexing mechanism.
Sleep is also important when we are in need of fixing. When we don't feel well, when we are sick or injured, our brain insists we go to sleep and we sleep quite a bit during this time. That means that some restorative functions must be turned on during our sleep. Science does tell us for example, that our immune system is more active during sleep and begins to shut down when we are sleep deprived.
And how about those lazy teenagers that like to sleep until noon? It turns out that they have a good reason for doing so. Some hormones are released only during sleep and growth hormone is one of them. That seems to explain why children and teenagers need so much more sleep than adults do.
Sleep is important, no doubt and I think that no matter what happens in our body when we sleep, it all ties down with our brain. Our brain regulates majority of functions in our body and sleep re-energizes our brain so we can function and live.
As important as sleep is, we sure are not giving it the respect it deserves. We've been treating sleep like a pesky nuisance rather than powerful ally that it actually is. We live in a society that rewards work and punishes the need for sleep and then we wonder why we get sick.
We need our sleep. Let's stop apologizing for it.