Why Does Sleep Elude Us So? (And how important is it, anyway?)


Photo credit:  David Boyer (National Geographic)

As I lay awake last night, exhausted, yet not sleepy (I know – how frustrating, right?), I started to ponder the need for sleep.  All creatures need sleep.  Even plants shut down at night!  I know how important it is; mentally, emotionally, and physically.  So why do we struggle, and how much sleep do we need?  

We know we need to sleep.  Our bodies ask for it.  And if we don’t give it to them, they beg us for it.  Finally, we pay the price of not listening.  Perhaps we feel like we are functioning fine but our immune systems are sluggish, our response time may be less than usual (whether we recognize it or not), or maybe we have dull headaches.  Nothing we can’t work through, right?  That is certainly not ideal health, though.  A little more sleep deprivation and we hope it’s nothing as tragic as falling asleep at the wheel or our functioning being so impaired that we make disastrous mistakes.  

I know that when I wake up in the morning feeling refreshed, that I have gotten enough sleep.  And it does happen!  Unfortunately, there are pitfalls and bad habits that arise…  How many of us have that luxury of always getting the sleep we need?  The alarm always sounds too early!  And how early must I go to sleep to wake up naturally?  Seriously?!  I have too much to do…  Many of us are guilty of saying or feeling these things.  

Most of us spend more than a third of our lives sleeping.  The phrase ‘I’ll sleep when I’m dead’ really irks me because I’m afraid that will be much sooner than necessary for those who practice that mantra.  Sleep deprivation is very serious.  So, How much sleep do you need?  Are you getting it?  Are you tired?  Tired of being constantly stressed?  Forgetful?  Overweight?  Impulsive?  Sleep really isn’t a luxury.  Getting enough, good quality sleep is imperative.

I started moving slowly this morning and saw on Facebook that today’s Ted Talk was “Russell Foster: Why do we sleep?”  He calls sleep “the single most important behavior experience that we have.”  I am a huge fan of neuroscience.  I find it fascinating.  Mr. Foster does a great job at making it entertaining.  I highly recommend the 20 minute view (after you have finished this post, of course!)  He says that scientists can’t agree as to why we need to sleep.  Even after studying it so much.  Imagine that!  

He discusses some of the hypotheses, including:

  1. Restoration
  2. Energy conservation  (a hot dog roll?)
  3. Brain processing & memory consolidation

Like me, you probably know what you should be doing in order to fall asleep at night.  Often easier said than done, I know!  The basic reminders are:

  • Retrain your sleep cycle – dark at nighttime, light in the morning.
  • Limit caffeine after lunch.
  • Create a relaxing nighttime routine – we did it for our babies, we need it too!  This does not include electronic devices which stimulate the brain.  (Dang!)
  • A (boring) book is also good – with subdued lighting, of course.

The one thing Russell Foster knows from a scientific background is that enough quality sleep is essential for good mental health.  I happen to know that from experience.  I am much nicer, more patient, I think more clearly, and nearly all areas in my life are better when I’m well rested.  

So why don’t I make it a priority?  I do.  Then something happens and it begins to slip.  Sigh.  A late night here, an emergency there, and before you know it, all areas of my life are being effected, but ever so slightly.  Not really enough to notice.  But each of these subtle effects are causing a bit more work or more stress in my life.  The cycle begins to gain momentum.  More work and stress equals less time.  Where do I ‘borrow’ that time from?  Usually sleep, feeding the cycle.  And if I don’t pay careful attention, I’m back to being exhausted and sleepless.  Tonight I start working my way back.  I know what it feels like to be rested.  I need to draw on that.  I will remember to be mindful of my decisions that will effect my sleep tonight and start being proactive again, instead of being reactive.  Proactive is always the better choice!  

Sweet dreams.

2 thoughts on “Why Does Sleep Elude Us So? (And how important is it, anyway?)

  1. Pingback: Russell Foster: Why do we sleep? – [TED Talks] | mostly music

    1. BarbaraU Post author

      Laramisicblog, thank you for posting this. I had seen, and thoroughly enjoyed, this TED Talk on sleep by a neuroscientist. It is well worth the view. Not only is he very entertaining, but his information is so valuable too.


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