The Extraordinary Importance of Sleep


March 14-20, 2021 is National Sleep Awareness Week

The annual event celebrates sleep health and encourages the public to prioritize sleep to improve their overall health and well-being.

Story by Jeanie Edgmon

I know what you are thinking right now. An article about sleep is probably only good for inducing sleep. Nay, nay, I say. If this routine task and biological daily clock-out were a novel, it would be a cult-classic filled with suspense and intrigue and everyone reading it would ask themselves “How did I not know this?” at every plot twist.

Seriously. Sleep is a world of mystery, misunderstanding, conspiracy, intrigue, and controversy. In fact, most of us believe many notions based more on popular belief, and very little on scientific fact. And sleep experts say that it’s time for us to wake up and get educated about sleep.

It’s Like the Old Refrigerator Commercials

It wasn’t that long ago when folks were trying to figure out if the light stayed on in the refrigerator with the door closed. Similarly, it was not that long ago that everyone believed that the brain was passive and dormant, lights out, for the one-third of your life you spent sleeping.

Then in 1951, something happened that changed that belief and ignited a new branch of medicine.

Late one night in December of 1951, an ironically sleep-deprived scientist, Eugene Aserinsky was trying to repair a brain wave machine called an Offner dynograph. He hooked up his eight-year-old son to the machine and gave commands to look up, down, right, or left, over and over to test whether he had successfully fixed the machine. Finally, he watched in excitement from a nearby room as the pens tracking eye movement as well as the ones registering brain activity were swinging back and forth, suggesting his son was alert and looking around. Aserinsky went to his son expecting to find him awake but to his astonishment, the boy was fast asleep. The machine was tracking rapid eye movements and brain activity during his son’s sleep. The father stood over his son in both bewilderment and excitement, on the threshold of a great discovery. The lights were indeed on in our brains while we slept.

This discovery was as much about what it immediately revealed as what it began – a new branch of medicine leading to the diagnosis and treatment of sleep disorders. That one moment has led to many new and exciting understandings about sleep, and how it impacts our health.

Seventy years later, our knowledge of sleep still just scratches the surface. What we do know is that sleep is a complex and dynamic process and getting enough of it is as essential to your health as food and water. It supports a number of brain functions, including how nerve cells communicate with each other. Recent findings suggest that sleep plays a reparative or housekeeping role that removes toxins in your brain.

Sleep affects nearly every type of tissue and system in the body – from the brain, heart, and lungs to metabolism, immune function, mood, and disease resistance.  Recent research shows that a chronic lack of sleep, or getting poor quality sleep, significantly increases the risk of disorders including high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, depression, and obesity.

Sleep Science Turned on Its Head

Today, the US Centers for Disease Control says that we are supposed to get between seven and ten hours of sleep depending on our age. Although personal needs vary, adults, on average, need 7 to 8 hours of sleep per night.

However, according to researchers at NYU Langone Health’s School of Medicine who conducted a study published in 2019 in the journal Sleep Health, an amazing amount of people believe that getting five hours of sleep a night or less is not only just fine but actually preferable. 

It’s not very surprising that it remains a pervasive belief as it is one that has been ingrained in our culture for quite some time.

No one did more to frame time as a choice between productive work and unproductive times of rest than Thomas Edison. The vastly influential inventor was a staunch opponent of sleep. In an 1889 interview with Scientific American, Edison claimed he needed no more than four hours of sleep per day and required the same of his employees.

Perhaps uncoincidentally, the inventor of the incandescent light bulb spent considerable time and energy pushing the idea that success depended on staying awake to stay ahead. He often stated in a thinly veiled promotion that the light bulb should never go out.

Edison encouraged all Americans to follow his lead, claiming eight hours of sleep was a waste and harmful. Other high-profile people jumped on board shifting sleep from a biological function to merely a matter of driving a campaign that infiltrated everything from Dale Carnegie’s self-help books to magazines and children’s school books.

Even today sleep deprivation is often seen as a badge of honor of the highly successful who do not need eight hours of sleep like the rest of us common cream puffs do.

Thank goodness for those of us who appreciate a solid 8 hours of sleep, in recent years, a significant expansion in the development and use of multi-modal sensors and technologies to monitor sleep and sleep cycles that has generated a vast amount of data linking sleep patterns to disease and to wellness.

Even our understanding of sleep’s link to success has grown and now we know that it serves all parts of our body and well-being including those aspects that serve success, such as intellectual function, alertness, mood, and decision-making processes. While its greater biological purpose remains a mystery, we do know that good sleep is critical to your health, safety, and productivity. As a culture, it is important that we continue to prioritize healthy sleep patterns and develop good sleep habits.

For more information about sleep or Sleep Awareness Week, please visit the National Sleep Foundation.