It's serious stuff.
In this excerpt from Healing the Brain: Stress, Trauma and Development, we take a close look at sleep.
Fighting a National Sleep Crisis
Many people view sleep as merely a “down time” when their brains shut off and their bodies rest. People may cut back on sleep, thinking it won’t be a problem, because other responsibilities seem much more important. But research shows that a number of vital tasks carried out during sleep help people stay healthy and function at their best. While you sleep, your brain is hard at work forming the pathways necessary for learning and creating memories and new insights. Without enough sleep, you can’t focus and pay attention or respond quickly. A lack of sleep may even cause mood problems. Also, growing evidence shows that a chronic lack of sleep increases your risk of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and infections.
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Researchers acknowledge that regular, consistent sleep plays a major role in brain and body health
Despite growing support for the idea that adequate sleep, like adequate nutrition and physical activity, is vital to our well-being, people are sleeping less. The nonstop “24/7” nature of the world today encourages longer or nighttime work hours and offers continual access to entertainment and other activities. To keep up, people cut back on sleep. A common myth is that people can learn to get by on little sleep (such as less than 6 hours a night) with no adverse effects. Research suggests, however, that adults need at least 7–8 hours of sleep each night to be well rested. Indeed, in 1910, most people slept 9 hours a night. But recent surveys show the average adult now sleeps fewer than 7 hours a night.
Chronic sleep loss or sleep disorders may affect as many as 70 million Americans.
More than one-third of adults report daytime sleepiness so severe that it interferes with work, driving, and social functioning at least a few days each month. Evidence also shows that children’s and adolescents’ sleep is shorter than recommended. These trends have been linked to increased exposure to electronic media. Lack of sleep may have a direct effect on children’s health, behavior, and development. Chronic sleep loss or sleep disorders may affect as many as 70 million Americans. This may result in an annual cost of $16 billion in health care expenses and $50 billion in lost productivity.
What Makes You Sleep? Although you may put off going to sleep in order to squeeze more activities into your day, eventually your need for sleep becomes overwhelming. This need appears to be due, in part, to two substances your body produces. One substance, called adenosine, builds up in your blood while you’re awake. Then, while you sleep, your body breaks down the adenosine. Levels of this substance in your body may help trigger sleep when needed.
A buildup of adenosine and many other complex factors might explain why, after several nights of less than optimal amounts of sleep, you build up a sleep debt. This may cause you to sleep longer than normal or at unplanned times during the day. Because of your body’s internal processes, you can’t adapt to getting less sleep than your body needs. Eventually, a lack of sleep catches up with you. The other substance that helps make you sleep is a hormone called melatonin. This hormone makes you naturally feel sleepy at night. It is part of your internal “biological clock,” which controls when you feel sleepy and your sleep patterns. Your biological clock is a small bundle of cells in your brain that works throughout the day and night. Internal and external environmental cues, such as light signals received through your eyes, control these cells. Your biological clock triggers your body to produce melatonin, which helps prepare your brain and body for sleep. As melatonin is released, you’ll feel increasingly drowsy.