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With recent news coming out that wild elephants can survive with as little as two hours sleep a night, it does make you wonder how much more we could get done without the need to sleep. Whether it be to get through extra work, make sure the kid’s science project is done, or even just catching up on all that TV we never seem to get around to watching. There’s no denying that needing to sleep less would come in handy. But why do we need to sleep anyway?

Couple SleepingWe spend roughly a third of our lives in bed sleeping, and scientists are still baffled by why we need so much sleep to function. For some, sleep is a chance to get a rest after our day’s strenuous activities and allow our bodies to recover. Yet, when we sleep we don’t save all that much energy. In fact, the energy save over an eight-hour sleep is as little as 50 calories.

Much more likely, is the fact that we need to sleep at night for our brains. During the night, our brain undertakes essential maintenance on our cognitive skills such as memory, speech, the ability to think on our feet and be creative.  All things that we probably take for granted, indeed, it’s not until we don’t get enough sleep that we really start to experience just how much our sleep helps us.

Many students these days will pull an all-nighter in order to finish essays or study for an upcoming exam, but the after-effects can be extremely debilitating. If you’ve never pulled an all-nighter yourself, the next day can be described as something akin to your worst hangover. You’ll be grumpy, irritable, groggy and simply just not at your best. You won’t feel alert and you’ll have difficulty remembering things and paying attention. And this is just from one night!

Over time, with extended bouts of insufficient sleep, your brain will severely start to shut down and can become increasingly dangerous. In fact, just being awake for 17 hours in a row is enough to raise your blood alcohol level to the equivalent of two glasses of wine. This would out you well over the legal limit for driving, without having drank anything! Worse still, entire parts of your brain will start to shut down, these areas include memory, language and planning and you will find it difficult to properly function. Much like if you were actually drunk. Most dangerously our reaction time and judgements can be severely affected so you could put yourself in bad situations simply because your brain isn’t thinking straight.

Lack of sleep will also contribute to stress and high blood pressure, these can lead to other problems like obesity, diabetes and heart disease over time.

When we do sleep, our brains solidify the information we learned that day to consolidate it into a memory. Over the night your brain will work through what you learned during the day though various steps. This will result in what started as small pieces of short-term memory being built into a strong piece of long-term memory, which is known as consolidation. This is probably the reason why children need so much sleep, as they are learning so many new things every day. Your body also uses this time to make repairs and maintenance on your body.

We might not know exactly why we need to sleep for so long, but it’s certainly clear that we can’t function without it. How much sleep we need alters from person to person but, generally, an adult will need 6-8 hours good quality sleep a day. 

Image courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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