The Need for Sleep

by Dr. Lorin Bradbury

Question: Does anyone know why we need to sleep?

There has been a great deal of research on sleep and the need for sleep. We apparently create a sleep debt when we go without sleep. College students at the University of Florida who participated in a sleep experiment were limited to two hours of sleep for one night. The following day, they were more irritable, fatigued, and inefficient. The next night, they fell asleep more quickly and slept longer than usual.

There appears to be more problems associated with frequent changes in length of sleeping than gradually reducing sleep from eight to fours hours per night. The more regular you can make your sleep the better.

If you were to watch someone sleeping over a night, you would notice periods of time in which the person’s eyes appear to be moving rapidly beneath their eyelids. If you were to awaken the individual, they would likely report that they were dreaming. Also, during that stage of sleep the body would likely be extremely relaxed—actually paralyzed—a healthy, needful paralysis.

There is evidence that this Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep plays an essential role in the consolidation of newly learned information from the day before. In computer jargon, you might think of it as “defragging”. Depriving participants approximately two hours of REM sleep each night had the same effect as much longer deprivations of sleep in general. The participants were irritable, inefficient, and fatigued. When volunteers gradually reduced their nightly sleep by four hours, they packed their two hours of REM sleep tightly into the shortened sleeping time.

The Sleep as Repair Hypothesis posits that sleep repairs the body. Sleep is a time of increased anabolic activity, including growth of bone length in children and increased rate of cell division in both children and adults. Protein synthesis within the brain increases during REM sleep. Studies of long distance runners showed evidence of increased periods of deep sleep following a race. Apparently, the body repairs itself during sleep. Depriving oneself of sleep over a period of time could result in the body not being able to appropriately repair itself.

Recent research has found that many people living in industrialized countries are continually sleep deprived. With the advent of round-the-clock television, Internet, cell phones, and other electronic gadgetry, people are depriving their bodies of a very necessary activity. In essence many people live in a constant state of jet lag. As a result, work, relationships, and quality of life are impacted. The body does not have opportunity to repair itself, work is less productive because sleep-deprived individuals are unable to concentrate as well, and relationships are harmed due to irritability and other emotional problems. Overall, quality of life is reduced.

If you want to improve your life and potentially live longer, it is beneficial to put yourself and your family on a schedule in which you plan for eight to ten hours of sleep each night, go to bed at the same time each night, and get up at the same time each morning.

Do an experiment, consider sitting down with your family and developing a schedule that provides for no less than eight hours of sleep. Shut off all electronic gadgets one hour before going to bed—no TV, no internet, no telephones, no texting, no computers, etc. Begin to wind down by reading (reading stories to the children, or reading for pleasure). Allow sleep to overcome you and enjoy the experience of our fathers and grandfathers prior to all the electronic gadgetry. Give it a try for a week and see how you feel at the end of that week. You will likely find that you feel better and are more productive than you have been in a long time. Then extend the practice one week at a time.

Lorin L. Bradbury, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Bethel. For appointments, he can be reached at 543-3266. If you have questions that you would like Dr. Bradbury to answer in the Delta Discovery, please send them to The Delta Discovery, P.O. Box 1028, Bethel, AK 99559, or e-mail them to [email protected]