The average person spends 25 years doing this activity in their lifetime. Babies spend upwards of three quarters of a day in its grasp. It is connected to almost every area of functioning—physical, psychological, or otherwise. It has been found that humans can survive three times as long without food than without this. After just 72 hours or less without it, hallucinations, blackouts, weight loss, dementia, and even death can occur. It is the source of mystery and conjecture anywhere from secret messages to repressed memories to divine visions. It is sleep.
Although researchers acknowledge that there is much to learn, what we do know increasingly sends one clear message. Sleep is vastly more than just rest and quietness. In 2013, an article was published in the journal of Scientific American entitled, Sleeps Role in Obesity, Schizophrenia, Diabetes…Everything. The authors provide an overview of the growing mountain of studies that point to the amazing potential, and significant risks, associated with different sleep patterns. We know that ADHD rates are higher in kids with poor sleep. We know that psychologically healthy kids look a lot like those diagnosed with ADHD when they are chronically sleep deprived. Studies have long shown that roughly 90% of people diagnosed with anxiety disorders report sleep-reported problems, the latter potentially causing or worsening the former. If you take kids with obstructive sleep apnea and ADHD symptoms and remove their tonsils and adenoids, the improvement in attention is typically much better than using medication. Shortened sleep duration in young kids is associated with a lifelong risk for obesity. Long-term sleep deprivation mimics psychosis in healthy individuals. If you have sleep apnea, your risk for depression is fivefold; if you have depression, the risk of apnea is fourfold.
But sleep is not just about warding off disease and disability. Good sleep is associated with learning better and remembering more. It appears that our memory is better if we “sleep on it.” Taking naps after learning tasks results in greater recollection and retrieval than staying awake. Dreams, long the source of so many conjectures and theories, appear to not necessarily recreate what actually has happened, but create scenarios about events and tasks that likely serve many purposes. All of us, including athletes, often depend on sleep, including recovery naps, to repair the body. Exercise often improves sleep. Sleep often improves exercise. Roughly two-thirds of our growth hormone, which is involved with muscle development, is secreted during sleep. Sleep helps control when we feel full, and when it is time to eat in order to prepare for the day. Sleep appears to regulate our blood sugar. Studies suggest that going to bed earlier can help make a diet more successful. Even the types of foods and drinks we consume can significantly affect our sleep.
Yet as science continues to reinforce the critical nature of sleep, societal trends do not. Evidence suggests that we are sleeping 20% less than just 100 years ago. And while preventable physical and psychological ailments, such as obesity, diabetes and anxiety disorders, appear on the rise, there are serious questions about whether our great sleep recession has much to do with our health woes. Furthermore, for anyone who has ever gone through an extended period of sleeplessness, you know that difficulty concentrating, irritability, and general fatigue make any task, whether talking to people, praying, or completing daily tasks, that much more difficult.
There was a time around a century ago when sleep was basically controlled by two things: the absence or presence of natural light and the time since our last snooze. But today, in our 24/7 culture, sleep patterns have increasingly been removed from the natural rhythms of the day and often relegated as a second class citizen despite all that we know.
But a reality remains. Unlike many other organisms, it appears that we were designed to need regular, quality sleep no matter what societal shifts occur. The need for sleep does not adhere to a popular, trendy design; it adheres to a truthful one. The challenge for all of us, though, is that sleep is so mysterious, so unconscious, that although we intuitively know it is important, we can’t directly see or feel how it works as we might when a meal renders us full or sustained physical activity creates more tone. It requires a leap of faith. In fact, if all that I have said is true, it seems that going to bed, and preserving regular, quality sleep through good habits and bedrooms designed for zzz’s and not TVs, may be the ultimate test of our trust in the divine design.