The Lost City of Zzzzz: Is Sleep the New Miracle Cure?

What if science discovered a way to become stronger, smarter, healthier, more productive and better looking—for free? One that required no effort on our part? So easy you could do it in your sleep? Well accumulating research suggests there is one: that sleep itself is the new miracle cure. No human function offers more benefit, for less effort.

Benefits of a Good Night’s Sleep

Sure, it feels good. A solid night’s rest is the ultimate reset button. But what does it do? We may not be awake to see it, but sleep is where the heavy-lifting happens, the essential operations that maintain our physical, mental, and cognitive health.

What Happens When we Sleep?

Science’s understanding of sleep is still unfolding, but growing research shows sleep’s significance across every measure of health and wellness.  Studies of fruit flies, NCAA collegiate athletes, medical residents and shift workers confirm sleep’s key role. Sleep keeps our weight stable, makes us stronger, cements our memories, helps children grow, releases hormones. Sleep helps repair our cells. improve our mood, and bolsters our immune system.

How Much is Enough?

Do we all need the same amount of sleep? No, it varies from person to person, and some folk are more vulnerable to sleep loss than others.. But knowing how much sleep you need, and regulating how much you get, is an essential goal. Taking ownership of our sleep hygiene, measuring the quantity and quality of our sleep, creates  a healthy biofeedback loop that encourages progress and maximizes our health.

Sleep Deprivation

But If sleep is so good for you, then why are so many sleeping so poorly? More than half of American adults complain of insufficient sleep. And the cost of skipping sleep is steep. 

The impact of sleep deprivation is so deleterious that Guinness will no longer recognize World Records entries in that category.

How long can humans go without sleeping? Longer than you think. In 1959 New York DJ Peter Tripp decided to stay awake for 200 consecutive hours as a charity stunt for the March of Dimes. To publicize his feat he broadcasted from a glass booth in Times Square.  His deterioration was medically observed and photographed. By the 5th day Peter Tripp looked  day Peter Tripp looked  looked  day Peter Tripp looked “slightly crazed” and had begun to hallucinate.

The Lost City of Zzzzz: Is Sleep the New Miracle Cure? 1
Peter Tripp broadcasting his sleep experiment.

In 1964 Randy Gardner stayed awake 11 days for a high school science experiment. Gardner still holds the 264 hour title: not because no one has stayed awake longer (they have) but because Guinness refuses to accept additional entries, because of the health dangers.

What happens when we don’t sleep? Every aspect of our functioning is affected. Physical: Hand-eye coordination diminishes. Reaction time slows. Some studies show sleep impaired driving is as dangerous as driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol. People gain weight.. Cognitive function declines, including memory and focus. Mood is impacted: people are less sociable, negative emotions increase, including depression and anxiety. Positive emotions are comprised, e.g., optimism, resilience, and empathy.

The impact reaches beyond ourselves: Sleep deprivation makes us more likely to quarrel with our partners , and makes other people question our attractiveness and health, When fruit flies were isolated socially they slept less—the lack of sleep led to measurable stresses on a cellular level.

The effect of sleep deprivation is so destabilizing it’s been used to torture solders.  Rats deprived of REM sleep develop a debilitated appearance with skin lesions then die.. Unlike rats, humans do not generally die from sleep deprivation. Our bodies have evolved to protect us. We literally force ourselves to sleep before we reach the point of collapse.

How Does It Work?

Neurotransmitters act on neurons to make us sleep. Our sleep/wake cycle is determined by the balance between Process S (homeostatic) and Process C (circadian). There are 5 stages of sleep, including the most widely known REM. Each cycle takes 90 – 110 minutes and then begins again.

Our understanding of the neuro-mechanics of sleep is still evolving. Theories include exercise (our brains workout while we sleep, strengthening synapses) and house cleaning (we flush out toxic waste via the glymphatic system.)

As we stay awake past our bedtime, sleep pressure builds. The longer we are awake the more we need to sleep. When deprived of sleep our bodies will microsleep, taking little time-outs that we may not even recognize as sleep.

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