Sleeping is one of the fundamental behaviors that all humans do. Even when we work at night, our body clock begins to wind down our day as the sun sets and usually will trigger us to sleep.
But why do we sleep, and why is it necessary? What happens when to our bodies when we don’t get enough sleep? Also, what is some of the conditions can cause adults and children to miss their rest?
These questions and more will we will explore together as we try to understand sleep and its essential role in the health of humans.
What is Sleep?
One might think that defining sleep would be simple. After all, humans have been sleeping since our species began and probably before. The definition of sleep is even more compounded when you consider that we can’t see ourselves sleep and we usually are unaware that we are asleep.
Thankfully, the dawn of new technologies has allowed us to peer inside the brains of those who are sleeping and see what is going on. While we still cannot visualize dreams, scientists have discovered that sleep isn’t one stage but many.
Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), researchers have been able to look inside the brain and observe what parts are active and what parts are not. Surprisingly there are many regions of our brains that are more alert at night than when we are awake in the daytime.
During sleep, researchers observed that humans become unconscious and unaware for a few hours of our surroundings. Our bodies undergo necessary changes such as the shutdown of many of our senses, and in the deepest part of sleep, our bodies become paralyzed.
Upon awakening, we many people may remember nothing of the hours that have passed.
The amount of sleep necessary depends upon the age of the person sleeping. School-age children and younger need between 9-11 hours of shuteye at night while teens need 8-10. Young adults need 7-9 hours and the elderly require 7-8 hours of sleep.
The Stages of Sleep
Non-REM sleep consists of four stages, and the whole process can last from five to fifteen minutes. Let’s examine these four stages together.
Stage One. Our brain undergoes a fifty percent reduction in activity during this stage, but we are still easily aroused, and we may feel we have not been asleep at all. This stage lasts typically from five to ten minutes.
Stage Two. In this second period of sleep our muscles contract and relax, our heart slows, and our body temperature decreases. Once these things have been achieved, we are ready for deep sleep.
Stages Three and Four. This stage of sleep is crucial as its during it that our body repairs and regenerates tissues strengthens our immune system, and builds muscle and bone.
The length of time you may spend in stages three and four depends upon your age. People under thirty get about two hours of restorative sleep, but people over sixty-five may only get thirty minutes.
REM sleep occurs around an hour and a half after the onset of sleep. The percentage of time you will spend in REM sleep varies by age with infancy and early childhood scoring the highest rate. During adolescence and young adulthood REM sleep decreases and goes down farther the older you get.
REM sleep causes some important physiological changes including:
- Increased brain activity
- Muscle relaxation
- Accelerated Breathing
- Eye Movement
- Heart Rate Increases and may become erratic
During REM sleep is when we experience dreaming as our cerebellum becomes more active. It is also during this state of sleeping that our major muscles experience paralysis, but our faces, legs, and fingers may twitch.
Why is Sleep Important to Children?
One recent article by the Sleep Foundation about children and sleep stated, “Sleep is as important as nutrition and exercise.”
When children are asleep some significant brain functions occur. Their brains can recycle the neurotransmitters vital for brain cells to talk to one another.
Also, during sleep, a child’s brain does critical housekeeping tasks where the brain tissue is washed to flush away toxic waste products created by the brain during the day.
Unfortunately, children who are sleep deprived get that way after only four nights where they get less sleep than is required. Since sleep deprivation is cumulative, it may occur when the child misses only a few hours of sleep each night such as when the family is on vacation.
It isn’t just the brain that benefits from children receiving enough quality sleep. Other changes to their bodies occur as well including their growth, protection from heart disease, and the way their small bodies fight off disease.
Arousal Sleep Disorders that Affect Children
First, let’s break down what the is meant by an arousal disorder.
When most people think of arousal, they see in their mind being more active or responsive to stimuli. However, that is not what arousal sleep disorder in children is referring to.
Arousal disorder in children is a state of partial arousal from a deep sleep where the child presents with a mixture of light sleep and partial wakefulness. He or she may look awake and be crying loudly, moving or running and have no memory of having done so when they wake up.
We’re going to examine three of the most common types of sleep arousal disorders in children, sleepwalking sleep terrors, and nightmares.
Sleepwalking. Also known as parasomnias, sleepwalking occurs near the beginning of a child’s sleep/wake cycle. If you can remember, our bodies usually undergo a temporary paralysis during deep REM sleep. We do this to protect us from harming ourselves by acting out our dreams.
Sleepwalking may involve more than just walking about, in fact, you can exhibit an array of complex movements. A sleepwalker may talk or shout and do things not usually done when awake such as urinating in a trash can or reciting information they just learned. They may be terrified and try to walk or run away from whatever they have imagined in a dream state.
A child sleepwalker rarely will engage with another person to answer their questions, and sometimes will exhibit hostile behavior towards their worried parents.
This author knows of two boys (they were children in the 70s) who slept in bunk beds and had an entire conversation with one another while asleep.
A child will usually only have one episode of sleepwalking during the night and in many cases will disappear. However, some children have a sleepwalking episode several times in a single night and then experience no episodes for weeks.
Sleep Terrors. Sleep terrors are horrifying to both the person having them and those who witness them doing so. The child will suddenly sit up in bed and release a terrified scream or shout. This is followed by kicking, thrashing or even running from an imaginary source.
A child experiencing night terrors will be challenging to wake up and, in most cases will not recognize their parents who are trying to help them.
Usually, children experiencing these terrifying events will calm down on their own and then fall back into a peaceful sleep.
This author also has experience with night terrors. When I was growing up, my younger brother would wake up during the night screaming. He would stand on his bed and try to claw his way up the wall. These episodes would happen once a night, and he eventually outgrew them. However, hearing him screaming in terror inconsolably always brought tears to my eyes.
Nightmares. Nightmares are different from bad dreams because they wake you up. When a child has a nightmare, these intense dreams seem real to them and because of their age, may be hard to differentiate from reality.
Nightmares can cause a child to become upset and afraid to go back to sleep and can make children refuse to go to bed.
Nightmares usually happen during REM sleep during the final episode of the REM sleep cycle, but they can occur in earlier sleep stages as well.
These dreams often take on the form of danger and seem to focus on distressing themes that elicit negative emotions like anxiety, anger or fear. As in many sleep disorders, after a nightmare, the child will most likely be unable to remember the nightmare occurred or if they do the child won’t remember the details.
Why is it Important for Adults to Sleep?
Now let’s take a look at why sleep is essential to adults. Sleep is vital for good health and well-being. Getting enough shut-eye can protect your physical health, quality of life, and mental health.
It is only during sleep that your body does the vital work of healing and repairing your heart and blood vessels. If your body cannot make these critical repairs, you are left with a much higher risk of heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and stroke.
It has also come to light in recent research that sleep deficiency increases your risk of becoming obese. This is because during sleep your body works hard to maintain a healthy balance of the hormones that make you feel hungry or full. Without adequate rest, your body will not recognize when it is hungry and sated adequately triggering overeating and obesity.
It is also during sleep that your body regulates insulin. During deep sleep, your blood sugar is kept at an even level, and without adequate sleep, your blood insulin will run higher than usual. This puts you at high risk of forming diabetes.
Like in children, an adult’s immune system relies on good sleep to keep you healthy. The better the quality of sleep an adult gets, the higher they can fend off infections and even the common cold.
The adult brain, like those of children, requires sleep to do its housecleaning chores. The toxins that build up in our brains may be a contributing factor to the development of dementias such as Alzheimer’s Disease.
Three Common Sleep Disorders in Adults
The list of sleep disorders that can affect adults is long, but for the sake of length, we shall only cover two. These are insomnia and sleep apnea.
Insomnia. An article published by the Mayo Clinic gives this definition of insomnia:
“a common sleep disorder that can make it hard to fall asleep, hard to stay asleep, or cause you to wake up too early and not be able to get back to sleep. You may still feel tired when you wake up. Insomnia can sap not only your energy level and mood but also your health, work performance and quality of life.”
While the amount of sleep an adult varies, most of us require seven to eight hours of sleep at night. Most adults experience a mild spat of insomnia once in a while that may last for a few days, they usually follow a traumatic event.
However, folks with chronic insomnia experience night after night of limited or non-existent sleep often related to a medical condition or their medications.
The same article by the Mayo Clinic also gives a list of symptoms which include:
- Difficulty falling asleep at night
- Waking up during the night
- Waking up too early
- Not feeling rested after a night’s sleep
- Daytime tiredness or sleepiness
- Irritability, depression or anxiety
- Difficulty paying attention, focusing or remembering
- Increased errors or accidents
- Ongoing worries about sleep
There are many different causes of insomnia ranging from being stressed from work to have just experienced a traumatic event such as a death in the family.
However, many people who suffer from chronic insomnia have these episodes of wakefulness from poor sleep hygiene practices such as napping during the day or using an electronic device immediately before bed or after retiring.
All these activities can and will interfere with your normal sleep/wake cycle.
I have personally experienced severe and chronic insomnia throughout my life. I can remember well lying on the foot of my bed coloring in a coloring book when I was very young by the light of the street lamp outside my bedroom window.
I have long identified as a professional insomniac as I have spent a majority of my life awake. My problem was caused by extreme and repeated negative early life experiences that made me feel unsafe and afraid to fall asleep.
Sleep Apnea. Sometimes adults go to the doctor complaining of being tired all the time, even after they have slept well during the night. When physicians hear this, they often will order a sleep study for their patients to check for sleep disorders and they find their patient has a condition known as sleep apnea.
Sleep apnea is a serious sleep disorder where the person stops breathing several times during their sleep cycle. While there are many different types of sleep apnea, the most common is obstructive sleep apnea.
The most noticeable sign of obstructive sleep apnea is that of snoring. This is because the muscles in the throat periodically relax and block your airway while you sleep. While it is highly treatable, it is a severe condition because, during the periods when the airway is blocked, the body is starved of oxygen.
The sudden drop in oxygen levels in the blood causes your blood pressure to increase and to strain the entire cardiovascular system. This blood pressure increase can become permanent and puts you at risk of heart disease or stroke.
The more severe the case of obstructive sleep apnea you have the higher your risk for you to develop a heart attack and even heart failure.
Not only does obstructive sleep apnea increase the risk for heart attack, but it also can be responsible for arrhythmias of the heart, where the heart rhythm is abnormal.
These repeated periods of lack of oxygen to the heart even can cause sudden death.
Sleep is essential to human beings no matter what their age, nationality or career. Without sleep, we are left with severe medical, emotional and physical problems that can rob us of our joy in life.
When we keep good sleep hygiene in mind, sleep disorders quickly become a problem in the past instead of troublesome happenings in the present.
Remember, it is vital that children get their sleep so they can grow up healthy and active, but it is also critical for adults as well. With adequate sleep, human beings can find solutions to their personal problems, and in that way lead the way into a brighter future for all.
If you recognize yourself or someone you love in the descriptions of the different types of sleep disorders in this article, please see your physician immediately. Doing so could save more than a night’s sleep, it could save a life.
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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this post are the personal views of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the views of PatientNextDoor. Any omissions or errors are the author’s and PatientNextDoor does not assume any liability or responsibility for them.