Posted on Sep 13, 2013 by Michael Loftus
Considering we all (hopefully) experience sleep each and every day, the actual act of sleeping still remains to be a rather mysterious phenomenon and we are still learning new things about this necessary bodily function. Recently, with regard to the human species, some new research has thrown up some very specific reasons as to why sleep is so important.
For human beings, the requirements for sleep are typically put at between seven and a half to nine hours per night and the view is that anyone who regularly clocks up less than this may be doing themselves some harm. However, in today’s fast paced world, there is often an element of guilt attached to having too much sleep – the idea that productive time is being sacrificed by sleeping instead. Margaret Thatcher famously claimed that she only needed four hours of sleep per night as did Napoleon – and these two certainly daunted both colleagues and opponents with their energy. Thomas Edison is said to have thought that all sleep was a waste of time – or at least a waste of his time.
But for those of us less driven than Mrs Thatcher or Edison what are the essential benefits of sleep ? The answer is that no one is entirely sure. Of course there are many theories and what does become apparent is that there is progressive loss of some key functions as sleep deprivation goes on. After just one night without any sleep, concentration starts to slip and ones attention span also starts to deteriorate. In fact, there is a general failing of performance equivalent to the results of having taken enough alcohol to breach the UK driving limit.
More protracted sleep loss leads to progressive failure to reach rational decisions and in particular, to respond to fast changing situations. In fact, a lack of sleep has famously played a role in several major crises in history such as Exxon Valdez and both the Chernobyl and Three Mile Island nuclear power disasters.
These results suggest that sleep obviously does perform an important role and has a significant contribution to the effective operation of the brain. Another strand of current research has looked at some of the key biological and chemical factors that relate to sleep.
Scientists have suggested that during sleep, the production of crucial cells is enhanced – these cells are used in the production of a substance called myelin which then goes on to protect the way that brain itself works.
The rate of production of these building-block cells was found to be twice as high during sleep as wakefulness and was most dramatic during the stage known as REM sleep (rapid eye movement sleep).
The research is clearly at an early stage but it does lead to further speculation about the detailed chemistry of brain repair and maintenance and the way in which sleep – or activity that takes place during sleep – contributes to this.
More specifically, there has been some interest in the link between sleep and the condition of Multiple Sclerosis ((MS), brought about when the body’s own immune system breaks down the myelin protection of nerves in the brain and in the spinal cord. Future research may examine the extent to which sleep impacts on the symptoms of MS.
The same research team has also looked at the significance of sleep for development during teenage years. It is clear that during deep sleep there is a release of growth hormones in young children and teenagers. Many cells also show increased production and reduced breakdown of proteins during deep sleep. This impact on this protein development is of particular significance as these are needed for growth and repair of damage that factors such as stress and ultraviolet rays can produce, further underlying the chemical significance of sleep itself.