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Anecdotally, how many times have you heard people say that there isn’t enough time in a day — and simultaneously, that they’re exhausted? There’s never been a greater demand for our time and attention. People, and especially screens, are competing for our eyeballs constantly, often at the expense of our productivity and feelings of accomplishment. The obvious solution seems to be to throw more time at it. Stay later. Answer emails in bed. Sleep less. But that’s an unworkable cycle, because sleep is essential for recovering from one day to the next — and, indeed, for most of our vital functions, from memory to fighting off disease.

While scientists are far from understanding everything about sleep, the nature of our sleep cycle throughout the night is fairly well articulated. We sleep in cycles of 90 to 120 minutes, with each cycle consisting of NREM (non-rapid eye movement) and REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. During NREM sleep we go through three stages, according to the Harvard Medical School Division of Sleep Medicine. While these stages are defined by the corresponding levels of brain activity, they happen roughly as follows: N1 (or stage one) is a kind of intermediate period between wakefulness and sleeping, lasting about 10 minutes and characterized by involuntary twitching; N2 is deeper than N1, but not as deep as N3; N3 is deep sleep, also known as slow-wave sleep, characterized by a lower heart rate, slower breaths, limited muscle activity and a lower core temperature. REM sleep kicks in between 70 and 90 minutes. It’s also known as paradoxical sleep because while the heart rate, respiratory activity and brain activity are heightened, our arms and legs are basically paralyzed. After REM we continue the cycle back into N1, and we do this whole thing about four to six times — at least that’s what’s happening to those of us getting enough sleep.

While it’s generally suggested that adults sleep between seven and nine hours, a 2005 study by the National Sleep Foundation found that Americans sleep an average of 6.9 hours per night. This low number may be further compromised by hectic lifestyles; sticking to a predictable sleep schedule can help us feel more rested, while a constantly changing sleep schedule can disrupt our biological clock. Disruptions to our sleep during the night can also degrade the value of those hours, which can be as bad as not sleeping at all, according to a recent study published in Sleep Medicine.

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Intuitively, most of us know we’ve nailed a good night’s sleep when we feel refreshed in the morning, and a bad night’s sleep when we feel fatigued. So what’s actually happening while we’re under the covers? The list is long and complicated, but some of the most important functions include supporting memory, regulating hunger and clearing the brain of waste linked to Alzheimer’s (summed up neatly in this graphic from Scientific American). Another critically important thing that happens during sleep is the secretion of human growth hormone (HGH), an anabolic hormone associated with bone growth, muscle growth and liver function. Athletes are especially conscious of getting enough sleep so they can recover for the next day’s training. Beyond the positive results of sleep, there is a mountain of evidence suggesting that not getting enough sleep has negative side effects. Lack of sleep can negatively affect your immune system, increasing the risk of everything from the common cold to cardiovascular disease. Missing out on sleep has even been shown to persuade men that women are more interested in sex than they actually are.

What about those people who claim that they don’t need much sleep? Are they just being obnoxious? It turns out that it might be true: some people may require less sleep, genetically. A study published in Science and reported in Scientific American looked at a mother-daughter pair who had a genetic mutation on the gene DEC2 and who were able to sleep only six hours per night. And of course there’s notorious bio-tinkerer Tim Ferris’s experiments with polyphasic sleep in The 4-Hour Body, who reported that it’s possible to sleep for a total of two hours (six scheduled 20-minute naps) and be well-rested.

What all of this means is that getting a good night’s sleep is one of the most important things we can do for our overall health — and unlike external factors like the environment, it’s one that’s within our control. Sleep on a regular schedule; make your sleeping environment comfortable, restful and free of distractions; avoiding caffeine late in the day and excessive alcohol before bed; and generally prioritize sleep over the things that tend to cut into it.

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1 Institute of Medicine. Sleep Disorders and Sleep Deprivation: An Unmet Public Health Problem. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press; 2006
2 Schoenborn CA, Adams PF. Health Behaviors of Adults: United States, 2005–2007. National Center for Health Statistics. Vital Health Stat 10(245). 2010
3 National Institutes of Health Study
4 “Can You Catch Up on Lost Sleep?” Scientific American
5 American Academy of Sleep Medicine
6 “Repaying Your Sleep Debt” Harvard Health
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