The Science and Importance Behind Sleep

By: Francesca Cocchiarale
Edited by: Brendan Walsh

Who loves sleep? I know I do. I need at least 8 hours to function properly throughout the day, and that can be hard as a college student. Coffee can only do so much, which I learned the hard way. Though we all know sleep is vital to function and succeed every day, there is an epidemic associated with people, especially teens, not getting enough sleep or experiencing an irregular sleep pattern. Teens require 8-10 hours of sleep a night, but only approximately 15% of the teen population is getting this amount of sleep. It might be easier to make sleep a priority if everyone knew the science behind it, and how one can promote the best sleep schedule.

The Stages of Sleep and Why We Need It

Sleep occurs in different cycles, displaying different physiological and physical characteristics. There are two types of sleep: non-REM sleep (4 phases) and REM sleep (1 phase). Here is a brief rundown of each stage of sleep:

  • Stage 1 – Once you first start to fall asleep, you produce alpha and theta waves, which signifies that your brain is starting to slow down, as well as your eye movements.
  • Stage 2 – After sleeping for a little longer, your brain starts to produce sleep spindles. You can still easily wake up at this stage.
  • Stage 3 & 4 – This stage starts the official phase of deep sleep. Along with experiencing little to no eye movement or muscle activity, the body uses this time to repair muscle tissue or any other tissues that have been worked or damaged over the course of the day. It is harder to wake someone up in these stages.
  • Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep – Following deep sleep, beta waves appear, which are seen when you are awake and activating cognitive functioning (such as when you are doing homework). While the brain becomes more active, the body becomes essentially immobile with the exception of the eyes, which move back and forth quickly.

The duration of these stages depends on the age of the person and cycling through each of these stages is crucial in getting the most out of sleep. The amount of time needed for optimal benefits also varies for each person. Some might require 9 hours, while others may require as little as 4 (which is very rare). Though there have been extensive debates, scientists have generalized that sleep is definitely needed for general functioning. Sleep promotes “brain plasticity”, where brain cells are able to process information learned throughout the day and adapt to crucial information and remove excess materials within the brain in promoting the storage of only necessary information. Without sleep, you wouldn’t be able to remember the material you learned at school or work.  

What happens when you don’t get enough sleep? 

Lack of sleep is a common occurrence among many teens and college students, and not recognizing this issue leads to negative consequences:

How to Ensure You Get Enough Sleep

Based on my experiences with sleep, I had to change some of my habits in order to successfully get enough sleep. Here are some ways to promote sleep:

Making sleep a priority leads to promotion of better quality of life, as well as recognizable improvements in productivity and motivation. If you still have trouble pinpointing the reasons you are not sleeping enough, talk to your primary care physician, since this could be a deeper issue that needs to be discussed with a professional. Happy snoozing!

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