Proper rest, including quality sleep, is vital to our health and well-being. It is not only an issue of personal health, but one of safety. The Department of Transportation has regulations limiting the amount of time commercial drivers can operate their vehicles without time off for rest. Numerous airline, maritime and industrial accidents have been blamed on operator fatigue. Lack of rest also affects workplace efficiency. Office workers sometimes nod at the desk, with a long string of one keyboard character on the screen, or missing a step in procedures, forgetting to save vital information, pulling the wrong file, etc.
An overwhelming volume of information about the benefits and vital importance of sleep is available online and in print, much of it from medical and scientific sources. For some persons, this may give the appearance of being a new discovery, but this is concept was recognized for thousands of years. Modern research actually verifies and explains it. As an example from ancient literature, almost 3,000 years ago Solomon wrote, “In vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat—for he grants sleep to those he loves” (Psalm 127:2 [NIV]). Sleep was viewed as a divine gift for those who work.
Simple observation reveals that all life, including plant life, goes through diurnal (daily) cycles. Animals sleep. So do people. Even famous people reputed to never sleep actually slept, though it was not several hours at a time but multiple short periods throughout the 24-hour day. Also, most animals lie down when sleeping, and so do people. And almost all have preferences for what they lie on. We will get to that subject farther down.
What are the benefits of sleep? R. Morgan Griffin describes 9 benefits of sleep in an article for WebMD. These benefits are: Better health, better sex life, less pain, lower risk of injury, better mood, better weight control, clearer thinking, better memory, and stronger immunity. The first benefit listed, better health, is also the most important. In fact, almost all of the remaining benefits are either part of better health or contributing factors. Surveys and studies cited by various health organizations, such as Harvard Medical School, National Institutes of Health and WebMD, show that experiencing enough restful sleep (depending on age, development, and individual condition) is necessary for digestion, immunity, both long- and short-tem memory, proper growth, and many other health factors. Degradation or inadequacy in these areas results from sleep deprivation (for college students this averages less than six hours of sleep per night).
How much sleep is enough? Newborn babies sleep most of the time. By the First Grade, most children sleep about 8 to 10 hours a night. Adolescents need about 7 to 8 hours a night, although there is some disagreement with several experts calling for 9 hours. As stated above, studies suggest that young adults (including college students) need at least six hours of sleep per day, a requirement which continues up to the senior years. However, the amount of sleep needed by individuals varies. The amount needed is affected by personal physiology, one’s state of health, occupational demands, and lifestyle. Lifestyle and occupation can also hinder of enable sufficient sleep time.
The question is not just how much we sleep, but also how we sleep. There are different stages or levels of sleep. The two most significant are slow wave sleep (SWS) and rapid eye movement (REM). These stages tend to alternate through the sleep cycle. Some sleep researchers credit one of these two stages with setting and coördinating short-term memory, the other with long-term memory. What they agree on is that students with adequate sleep, a full cycle which includes both stages, have better memory.
Most of us sleep in one several-hour span per day-night cycle. This is called monophasic sleep. Before the invention of electric lighting, most people experienced bi-phasic sleep, waking up about midway through the night for a while then going back to sleep. Many persons today, especially those with short nights, take a short nap during the afternoon. A few individuals, including some well-known historical figures, slept mostly in several short naps throughout the day (multiphasic sleep). Some have/had a short night sleep time of about 3 hours, making up the difference with naps. Some research seems to indicate that these individuals are able to experience both stages of sleep in separate sleep periods. This may be a trait of select individuals—in other words, “Not everyone can so this.”
Inadequate sleep, whether in quantity or quality, is a negative safety factor. We are all aware of drowsiness and falling asleep being a factor in accidents. But impaired alertness is also a factor. When we think someone is “just not paying attention,” their alertness may be impaired by sleep deprivation. This is usually not just one short night, but several, often over a long period of time. Lack of alertness also factors into poor academic performance. Alertness is necessary to perceive vital details in an article, book or other document. It is also needed in editing one’s own work, catching errors of all sorts from spelling to format to facts.
The most perceived benefit of sufficient sleep is feeling well. If we sleep enough and sleep well, we will feel better, physically and emotionally. The obvious exception to this are the persons who always feels guilty when they “sleep too much,” meaning more than an unreasonably short sleep time to which they had been conditioned.
As to physical health, many studies highlight the correlation between sleep (or the lack thereof) and circulation, immunity, digestion and other physiological functions.
As to sleeping positions, the “mat” in “mattress” is for sleeping mats. Throughout history people have had various kinds of cushioning between their bodies and the hard ground or floor. For many this was a sleeping mat, usually woven, which could be, rolled out at night to sleep on, and rolled up and put out of the way in the daytime. Later on, these mats were filled with various cushioning materials and called “mattresses.”
Sleeping mats and mattresses have a lot to do with the benefits of sleep. Sleep is more restful when it is comfortable—or at least not uncomfortable. The first role of cushioning is to relieve pressure points, a concept predating the term. The first solution was to soften the interface between prominent points of a sleeper’s body and the ground. Modern mattresses try to support the body’s weight evenly so these points do not bear more of the burden than other parts of the body.
Another role for the mat/mattress is insulation. When the ground or floor is cold, we need to keep warm. From the beginning, mats and mattress fillings—for instance as cotton, wool, down, and straw—have been insulating materials. But comfortable, restful sleep depends not only on keeping warm, but on not being too warm, so mattresses manufacturers try to make their products breathable.
Overall, ancient wisdom from many cultures on the value of good sleep has been borne out by modern scientific and medical research. Many persons and companies aim to promote beneficial sleep through their products and services: bedroom design, beds, adjustable beds , mattresses, bedding and accessories.
Our next article focuses on the quality of sleep
American Academy of Sleep Medicine, “College Students: Getting Enough Sleep is Vital to Academic Success,” Friday, November 30, 2007, http://www.aasmnet.org/articles.aspx?id=659, accessed 03/05/2014.
Division of Sleep Medicine, Harvard Medical School, “Healthy Sleep: Benefits of Sleep,” http://healthysleep.med.harvard.edu/healthy/matters/benefits-of-sleep, accessed 03/05/2014.
Griffin, R. Morgan, “9 Surprising Reasons to Get More Sleep,” WebMD Feature, WebMD http://www.webmd.com/sleep-disorders/features/9-reasons-to-sleep-more, accessed 03/05/2014.
National Sleep Foundation, “Napping,” http://sleepfoundation.org/sleep-topics/napping, accessed 03/06/2014.
National Sleep Foundation, “Teens and Sleep,” http://sleepfoundation.org/sleep-topics/teens-and-sleep, accessed 03/05/2014.
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