Many theories explain why sleep is important. “Theories” because even though sleep is a universal human experience, it’s still a mystery. Scientists, psychologists, neurologists and researchers are still trying to understand its functions and why it’s so important.
One of the most popular theories on why we sleep involves the glymphatic system, which cleans out the brain tissue of all toxins and byproducts. It’s exclusively effective and active during the night, so this is where you see neuronal and tissue repair as well as the toxins and cellular metabolites getting cleaned from your brain.
If you don’t get enough sleep, those proteins tend to accumulate. One of these proteins is beta amyloid, a building block in Alzheimer’s or dementia.
Another theory is that the brain organizes itself while we sleep and consolidates all the memory gathered through the day.
We gather information during the day, and the only way to consolidate this is during the night. The brain performs defragmentation process, like in computers, where it takes information that’s not needed and consolidates it, deletes some and makes room for information we need to survive.
What is sleep like for those who sleep during the day?
Humans have an internal clock that regulates our sleep-wake cycle called the circadian rhythm. This is not unique to humans as most living organisms develop this during the first month of their birth.
In humans, the main regulator of circadian rhythm can be found in the hypothalamus. A small area in your brain that’s responsible for connecting the nervous system to your endocrine system.
The circadian rhythm is dictated by a group of nerve cells in the hypothalamus called the suprachiasmatic nucleus or SCN. This is connected to our optic nerves. In turn, it allows the SCN cells to respond to night and day or brightness or darkness.
When our optic nerve senses light, our SCN cells send signals to raise our temperature, heart rate, blood pressure and delay the release of sleep hormones like melatonin. During the night, it sends signals that it’s time for the body to cool down and relax.
This explains why we tend to be energetic when we wake up in the morning, and then in the evening, we tend to feel a little bit sleepy because this is the time when the brain receives signals to release melatonin.
It’s important to know that certain periods in the 24-hour cycle will put people at risk for sleep. This is mainly any time during 3 am to 4 am. This is where our circadian clock is at its lowest alertness.
How Much Sleep Do You Need?
This is one of the most commonly asked questions when it comes to sleep. Answers differ, depending on the age group.
|Hours of Sleep
|0 to 2 months
|12 to 18 hrs
|3 months to 1 year old
|14 to 15 hrs
|1 to 3 years old
|12 to 14 hrs
|3 to 5 years old
|11 to 13 hrs
|5 to 12 years old
|10 to 11 hrs
|12 to 18 years old
|8.5 to 9.5 hrs
|7 to 9 hrs
Causes of Sleepiness
There are times when we’ll feel sleepy no matter what time it is in the day which may not be normal.
Here are the common causes of sleepiness:
- Circadian Rhythm Disruption (when a person doesn’t follow his/her internal clock cycle)
- Insufficient Sleep
- Mood Disorder
- Primary Sleep Disorders
Kinds of Sleep Disorders
A person with insomnia finds it difficult to fall asleep or stay asleep. They also tend to wake up too early. Insomnia is one of the most prevalent sleep disorders as 25 percent of Americans experience insomnia each year. Thankfully, it’s reported that 75 percent of these people only have short-term insomnia.
Causes of Insomnia
Insomnia can be the result of many physical and psychological factors. Sometimes, the cause can be a temporary problem, like stress. However, in some cases, it can stem from other medical conditions.
Common causes include:
- Uncomfortable room temperature
- Switching shifts at work or dealing with changes in the circadian rhythm
- Lack of exercise
- Caring for an infant or a someone at home
- Sleep Apnea
Most patients who have insomnia say they use over-the-counter medications like Tylenol, Benadryl, diphehydramine and melatonin. Though there’s little data on how effective or safe these are in improving sleep.
The most reliable approach you can try will depend on what causes a particular case of insomnia, some options can be:
- Consulting a physician
- Prescription medications
- Over-the-counter sleep aids
Sleep apnea is a common but serious sleep disorder that affects breathing. In this case, your breathing is repeatedly interrupted during sleep. The breathing pauses and it typically lasts between 10 to 20 seconds, which can happen from 5 to over 100 times an hour.
This causes a lack of oxygen that finally wakes you up, however, it’s so brief that you won’t remember it. These sleep disruptions also keeps you from going under deep sleep, the kind of sleep that allows for the restorative cycle to happen and what you need to stay refreshed in the morning.
- Frequent loud snoring
- Choking and gasping during sleep
- Fatigue and sleepiness during the day
- Morning headache
- Waking up at night with a hard time breathing
For mild sleep apnea, incorporating new habits into your lifestyle can be enough to treat the disorder. There are also home remedies for sleep apnea that you can try. It’s still best to consult with your general physician as they will let you know the best way to start.
Treatments for sleep apnea:
- Regular exercise
- Weight loss
- Avoid alcohol
- Change your sleeping position (side sleeping is said to be the best position for sleep apnea.)
In severe cases that can involve more than 30 breathing episodes per hour, professional help is necessary. It doesn’t only pose health risks but will impact your physical and mental health as well.
In addition to getting professional help and changing your lifestyle, you can also try the continuous positive airflow pressure therapy (CPAP). A CPAP device is a machine that uses a nosepiece and a hose to deliver a steady airflow while you’re asleep. The air pressure then keeps your airway open so that it prevents pauses in breathing.
Some surgical options will also allow you to increase the size of your airway. Here, the surgeon can take out excess tissues, adenoids, tonsils, or reconstruct your jaw.
Narcolepsy is a sleeping disorder that causes people to fall asleep during the day. This can happen at anytime and anywhere, and can last about 10 to 15 minutes.
These “sleep attacks” can also occur several times a day. Between 135,000 to 200,000 people Americans have narcolepsy. The cause is not known to science, however, studies suggest it may be genetic.
- Extreme sleepiness
- Body goes limp and the person loses muscle control
- Sleep paralysis
There’s no cure for narcolepsy yet, however, treatments can help alleviate the symptoms. Some treatments you can try are:
- Stimulants that can treat sleepiness
- Lifestyle changes like eating smaller meals, regulating your sleep schedule, and taking daytime naps
- Proper exercise
If you’re experiencing frequent sleep attacks, see a doctor immediately as they can properly diagnose if you have narcolepsy or if you’re being plagued by another sleep disorder and determine the proper steps to take moving forward.
Parasomnia is a sleeping disorder that involves abnormal actions while sleeping. This includes sleepwalking, nightmares, sleep terrors, sleep paralysis, sleep eating disorders and enuresis (bedwetting), to name a few.
Parasomnia can also happen during any sleep stage. These are also more common in children and become less frequent in adulthood. However, it does affect 4 percent of the adult population.
Symptoms will vary depending on the type of parasomnia. General signs can include:
- Waking up in a state of confusion
- Unfamiliar cuts or bruises in the body
- Unable to move or speak upon waking up
- Waking up confused and disoriented
Treatments will also differ depending on the type and severity of a patient’s symptoms. The first step is to determine if there are any existing or underlying health problems or sleep disorders. Treating those first can help treat parasomnia.
Some treatments that can relieve the symptoms include:
- Talk therapy
- Cognitive behavioral therapy
- Prescribed tranquilizers for treating symptoms like sleepwalking
If you’re sleeping with someone who has parasomnia, create a safe environment for the two of you by removing any objects that can be dangerous. It may also be advisable to sleep in a separate bed.
Sleeping disorders will interfere with your daily life. They can also increase the risk of health problems. So your quality of life depends on good sleep — prioritize it. If you have trouble getting a good night’s rest, seek medical advice.