Most people know that sleep is a critical part of maintaining one’s health. However, many people are not educated on exactly what sleep does for our bodies, why it is so important to our health, and the potential dangers of not getting enough sleep. In this article we will delve into all you need to know about what sleep is and the function it performs for our bodies, the effects lack of sleep can have on one’s mind and body, strategies one can use for ensuring a good night’s sleep, and even how falling asleep behind the wheel when you are fatigued can end up with extreme consequences (but don’t worry - we have a solution for that too!).
First of all, what exactly is sleep?
Although the answer to this question may seem like it would be simple, there are actually a lot of parts involved in sleep that can differentiate a good night’s rest versus a sleepless or restless night. In general terms, according to the Sleep Foundation, “sleep” is an essential function which is used to let your body and mind recharge from the stresses of the day (source). This is the definition of sleep that most people would think of and relate to. However, sleep is so much more than just a recharge! It performs many other functions related to your health, growth, and development both physically and mentally.
Technically speaking, sleep is a cycle of rest that is essential to performing functions that keep you alert, sharp, aware, and refreshed during the day so you can do the things you need or want to do. This cycle is regulated by an internal “body clock”, which is operated on a 24-hour cycle known as the “circadian rhythm”, and controls when you should feel tired so you can get some sleep, or controls when you are wide awake and cognitively aware so you can perform your daily functions efficiently (source). Once you wake up from sleep, your energy levels will decrease throughout the day, until around evening and leading up to the end of your body’s internal bedtime clock, when your fatigue peaks and you are ready for bed.
Many things are thought to influence one’s circadian rhythm and impact when you fall asleep. One of those things is an organic compound produced in the brain called adenosine. Throughout the day as you become more tired, your adenosine levels increase. During sleep, your body breaks down this compound and the cycle starts over again (source). Another influence on one’s sleep cycle is the hormone known as melatonin. This hormone begins to release within the body as natural light from the day begins to fade into night. It is known to induce drowsiness, and a supplement for the hormone is often taken by those who have trouble sleeping at night. In the morning, as the natural light from the sun rises, our bodies release a hormone known as cortisol, which increases energy and alertness (source). Because of these two hormones, melatonin and cortisol, it is reasonable to conclude that natural light and the rising or setting of the sun also influences our sleep cycle.
Not only does your body go through a 24-hour cycle that regulates your waking time and your resting time, but sleep itself takes place in cyclical stages as well. There are 4 distinct stages that make up this sleep cycle, three of which are classified as “non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep”, and the final stage is known as “rapid eye movement (REM) sleep” (source). Each stage is characterized by different sleep behaviors and functions, and can last for different amounts of time each. An individual can go through anywhere between four to six sleep cycles in a night, which on average last about 90 minutes each (source).
Stages of Sleep:
- Stage 1 NREM (sometimes called N1): The stage of sleep between alert and asleep, commonly seen as “dozing off”. N1 sleep usually lasts only one to five minutes, and is the stage where the body and mind transitions into slumber. This stage involves the relaxing of the muscles in the body (although not fully relaxed quite yet), and a slowing of brain activity. This stage of sleep is very light, and one can easily be woken up during it. However, if the person is left undisturbed, stage 2 of the cycle can come on quickly, and they will likely not spend much more time in stage 1 throughout the cycles. (source)
- Stage 2 NREM (sometimes called N2): A stage of sleep that is deeper than N1, lasting roughly 10-25 minutes and lengthening throughout the night as the cycle continues. In fact, the average sleeper usually spends about half of their sleeping time in this stage. This stage is characterized by a drop in body temperature, slower breathing and heart rate, and more fully relaxed muscles. Brain activity slows much more during this stage, but still experiences short bursts of increased activity, which is thought to actually help you sleep through environmental stimuli. (source)
- Stage 3 NREM (sometimes called N3 or “deep sleep”): The stage of sleep where one’s body relaxes even further, loosening muscles and slowing pulse and breathing even more than N2. It is much harder to wake someone up in this phase, which is part of why it is known as “deep sleep”. During this stage, brain activity forms an identifiable pattern called delta waves, giving N3 more names such as “delta sleep” or “slow-wave sleep (SWS)”. During the first half of the night is when N3 is experienced the most, for 20-40 minute intervals, which slowly get shorter as you continue to sleep. This stage is believed to be critical to one’s sleep health because it is a stage thought to contribute most to “restorative sleep”, which allows for the body to rest, recover, and even grow. N3 is even thought to contribute to the development of insightful thinking, creativity, and memory. (source)
- Stage 4 REM: Possibly the most interesting and most critical stage of sleep is known as REM sleep. Because during this stage the brain picks up significantly in activity, almost to wakefulness levels, this stage is most well known for the vivid and intense dreams it produces. However, experts believe that REM sleep is also essential to cognitive functions like memory, learning, and creativity. Usually REM sleep doesn’t begin until at least 90 minutes into sleeping, but the REM stages lengthen the longer you’ve been asleep. At first they may last only a couple minutes, but in the later cycles they can last for upwards of an hour and make up about a quarter of sleep for adults. (source)
Just like your 24-hour circadian rhythm, there are many factors that can impact your sleep stages as far as how much time you should spend in each stage for optimal sleep health versus how much time you actually spend in each stage, and also may impact the quality of your sleep if you are interrupted frequently or have trouble falling or staying asleep. Some of these factors include, but are not limited to (source):
➔Sleep disorders, which tend to wake the sleeper many times throughout the night and prevent a good night’s sleep from being accomplished. Examples of well-known sleeping disorders like this are sleep apnea and restless leg syndrome. There are also sleeping disorders that affect how much sleep you get by either preventing you from going to sleep at a normal time (known as insomnia) or by preventing you from functioning during the day due to exhaustion and increasing the amount of sleep you get to unhealthy levels (narcolepsy and chronic fatigue).
➔Age, which determines how much sleep your body and mind need to stay healthy. For instance, newborns need lots more sleep than an average adult would. Children from newborn age to preschool age are recommended over 10 hours of sleep per day, with the peak recommendation being 14-17 hours a day at 0-3 months old (source). Also, newborns spend around 50% of their sleep cycle in REM sleep (as opposed to 20-25% for the average adult), and can enter REM sleep much quicker than an adult (source). This is because childrens’ brains are developing and constantly taking in information to process from the world around them, all while trying to grow and maintain their own body as well.
➔Recent sleep patterns, which refer to your sleeping habits, and are impacted by both biological and circumstantial factors. For example, your job may require you to be up very early to make your commute on time, but maybe you have been going to bed past midnight because that’s what you’re used to. Perhaps you are a fan of after-work naps (as am I), but beware! If you sleep too long you are liable to staying up way too late and being unable to go to sleep on time to feel rested enough the next day. This starts a habit of being so tired by the time you get back home that you just end up taking a nap again, staying up too late, and so on. There are even studies showing that those who report getting insufficient sleep differ between ethnicities, which could imply both cultural and biological factors (source).
What is sleep good for, and why do we need it?
As we discussed before, sleep has many functions for the human mind and body. In the most general of terms, sleep keeps our brains and bodies functioning at full capacity. As the amount of sleep you get decreases, so does your ability to function normally. This impacts things such as your cognitive and motor functions, your ability to retain memories, your focus and performance, and your general quality of life.
Here is a list of just some of the crucial functions sleep performs:
●Sleep helps the body remain healthy and stave off diseases by keeping the immune system in healthy shape (source). Without adequate sleep, risk of infection and illness rises. Without healthy rest, symptoms of conditions like depression, seizures, high blood pressure, and migraines worsen as well (source).
●A good night’s rest is vital for “brain plasticity”, or the brain’s ability to process, adapt to, and store information. With too little sleep, we are unable to process what we’ve learned during that day and we may have more trouble remembering it in the future, sometimes majorly impacting our memory (source).
●During sleep the brain performs many essential biological processes such as repairing cells (muscle repair, protein synthesis, tissue growth, hormone release), restoring energy, organizing nerve cells, processing and storing information, and getting rid of toxic waste (source).
●In order to conserve energy, your metabolism during sleep functions at a lower capacity, so that you can reduce your energy use during the night. This is an evolutionary tactic of the body, leftover from when foraging and hunting during the night was not possible, so it was safer and more efficient to rest at night to restore energy for the hunting and foraging the next day (source).
●During sleep the “glymphatic (waste clearance) system” in your brain uses that time to clear out toxic byproducts of your brain’s functions throughout that day, making your mind work better when you wake up (source).
●Sleep affects brain functions such as: decision making, focus, concentration, problem-solving skills, critical thinking, learning, memory, and even creativity (source).
There are many more ways in which a night of healthy sleep is beneficial for body and brain function, but these are the big ones. Our sleep affects our health and daily life in a big way, which is why it is so important to get the recommended amount of sleep for your age group.
Healthy Sleep Habits and Drowsy Driving
Lack of sleep can lead to a variety of bad situations. The more drowsy a person is, the more their lack of sleep impacts their cognitive and motor functions, much like alcohol. This level of impairment can easily affect daily tasks, work efficiency, awareness of surroundings, and even your driving ability. Yes, that’s right - sleep health is crucial to ensuring that you don’t start falling asleep while driving and causing a large, potentially dangerous, crash!
Drowsy driving is, in fact, responsible for more than 6,000 fatal car crashes annually in the United States (source). When you haven’t gotten the recommended healthy amount of sleep for your age category, you risk falling asleep behind the wheel and becoming a part of that statistic. Because driver fatigue shares so many of the same symptoms with inebriated driving - like cognitive impairment, delayed reaction time, inability to concentrate, loss of efficient decision making and critical thinking, motor skills impairment, lack of awareness - one should try their best to avoid drowsy driving at all costs. To do that, one must develop healthy sleep habits, and use all tools at your disposal to ensure optimum safety on the road.
The first step you can take to developing healthy sleep habits is ensuring to schedule enough time to get adequate rest every night. Don’t stay up too late if you have to get up early. Give yourself plenty of time to get comfortable, fall asleep, and get up on time in the morning. Although staying up late can be fun, it can also be destructive to your sleep health and quality of life. If you have trouble getting to sleep on time, you can try over-the-counter sleep aids like melatonin supplements after consulting with a doctor first. You can also try creating a bedtime routine to wind down and signal to your brain that it’s almost time to sleep.
Just as important as falling asleep on time is waking up on time! By ensuring you’re falling asleep and waking up consistently at the same time every day (yes, this includes weekends and off days) you are getting your body into a routine. The human body and brain like consistency, and many people function best when they are on a schedule. Once you are used to this schedule, you will find yourself getting tired at the right time and waking up at the right time on your own, even without the aid of supplements or alarms.
Make sure to put away your devices when you start winding down for bedtime. Although it may seem relaxing to watch a couple of videos or scroll through social media before going to sleep, you will more often than not end up staying up way past the time you were supposed to go to sleep and have a more difficult time falling asleep even after putting the device away. Findings from the National Sleep Foundation show that using devices like smartphones and tablets in bed can “interfere with sleep by suppressing the production of melatonin” with the production of blue light from the screen (source).
Avoid naps during the day. Naps, although very tempting, could disrupt your body’s natural sleep-wake cycle. A quick 20-minute nap could very easily turn into a long 4-hour nap, which then delays your body and mind registering it is time to sleep. Naps often push your bedtime back at night, which in turn pushes your wake time back, and leaves you feeling foggy and discombobulated because of the break in your sleep schedule. Again, consistency is key.
But what happens if I still can’t sleep?
If you are having a lot of trouble getting on a consistent sleep schedule and developing healthy sleeping habits, you should work with a sleep specialist to get evaluated for potential sleep disorders. However, during this time you will still need to keep in mind that drowsy driving is dangerous. Don’t drive drowsy. Speedir’s Driver Fatigue Monitoring System can automatically detect and alert drowsy drivers.
Speedir, an automotive safety company, has always been on the forefront of safety innovations with the goal to improve the driving experience for everyone on the road. Speedir wants to make state-of-the-art safety technology accessible to anyone by making it affordable, efficient, and sleek. Speedir’s Driver Fatigue Monitoring System is no different.
As Speedir’s newest innovation, the Driver Fatigue Monitoring System (DMS) is a huge step forward in road safety for every driver. The DMS is an AI-integrated system that uses a combination of invisible infrared sensors and artificial intelligence algorithms to track a driver’s eye movements, facial expressions, and head movements. Upon detecting signs of fatigue such as yawning, extended eye closing, frequent blinking and head nodding, the DMS audibly alerts the driver to the potential danger. This type of secure monitoring is perfect for semi-fleets, buses, long-distance commuters, late-night shift workers, and more. Speedir’s Driver Fatigue Monitoring System would increase the safety of anyone who uses it in their vehicle, no matter what walk of life they come from.
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