An alarm clock

Did you get a solid eight hours of shut-eye last night? If you think you can get by on less, dream on. Scientists have been studying the role of sleep for centuries. While there is still no clear answer, recent research has served up some compelling findings about sleep’s powerful effects on our health and well-being.

Most of us think that we need sleep to replenish the energy we’ve used throughout the day. However, the amount of energy saved by sleeping for even eight hours is miniscule — about 50 calories, the same amount of energy in a piece of toast. In reality, sleep provides more than just rest. It actually plays a critical role in immune function, metabolism, memory, learning, and other vital functions.

One reason we sleep is based on the belief that sleep time is when the body repairs and rejuvenates itself. Lack of sleep seriously compromises — even halts — our body’s ability to grow muscle, repair tissues and release growth hormone. What better reason to catch a few more ZZZs?

There’s more, not only is sleep critical for optimal physical health, it also has a profound impact on learning and memory. This relationship can be described in terms of three functions:

  • Acquisition:
    - Occurs when we are awake
    - We introduce our brain to new information
  • Consolidation:
    - Occurs when we sleep
    - It’s the process we use to create lasting memories
  • Recall:
    - Occurs when we are awake
    - It’s our ability to tap into stored information

Even though research tells us that sleep is critical, a multitude of studies and surveys show that we are a dangerously sleep-deprived nation.

Canadian workers lose about 80,000 working days a year because of sleep deprivation. Productivity is lost by absenteeism — employees calling in sick — or 'presenteeism,' when employees are on the job but working at a suboptimal level.

33% of men aged 30 to 49 sleep only four to six hours a night, instead of the recommended eight hours.

33% of Canadian children are sleep deprived.

One of the main culprits behind our sleep deprivation? In a word, technology. Do you take your smart phone to bed with you or watch TV before lights out? Your bedtime routine could be why you’re lying awake counting your ceiling tiles instead of sleeping. The problem lies with electronic devices—they emit a blue light that works against sleep.

For example, if you read on an iPad before bed, studies have found that you will produce lower levels of melatonin — a hormone linked to sleepiness. You’ll also experience shorter restorative rapid eye movement cycles and delayed circadian rhythms. Rapid eye movement sleep is the most restorative part of our sleep cycle, and is when our brains and bodies are re-energized and dreaming occurs. Our internal biological clock, circadian rhythm, regulates when we feel sleepy and awake, and fluctuates throughout the day. If you miss out on these two important aspects, you’ll feel sleepier the next morning despite having slept eight hours the night before.

What’s more is that you don’t have to be staring directly at a television or computer screen; if enough blue light hits the eye, the brain can stop releasing melatonin. Consequently, using technology makes it harder to sleep.

So turn off your devices a few hours before bed and read a good book in dim light. It may be a big step in re-establishing your relationship with sleep and becoming your most productive self.

There’s no magic number that is prescribed for everyone. For most adults, seven to eight hours a night appear to be the best amount of sleep while others need as few as five hours or as many as 10. But don’t stress about the number of hours you’ve clocked in bed; rather, assess your energy level while you are awake.

Experts say that if you feel drowsy during the day, even during boring activities, you haven’t had enough sleep. “Burning the candle at both ends” has become so accepted, and expected, in our society that what is really abnormal sleepiness is now almost the norm.

A good way to understand the role of sleep is to look at what would happen if we didn't sleep. Not getting enough sleep seriously affects our brain's ability to function. After just one night without sleep, concentration becomes more difficult and our attention span shortens considerably. With continued lack of sufficient sleep, the part of the brain that controls language, memory, planning and sense of time practically shuts down.

Sleep-deprived individuals find it difficult to respond to rapidly changing situations and to make rational judgements. Lack of sleep is said to have been a contributing factor to the Exxon Valdez, Chernobyl and Three Mile Island disasters, and the Challenger shuttle explosion. Sleep deprivation also has a major impact on emotional health. Research has found that sleepy people focus on negativity and are unable to properly process emotional information.