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Science Says: Is Sleep Really THAT Important?

Submitted by Victoria Mugambi on September 21, 2016 – 11:05 amNo Comment

With the fall semester fully up and running, students are getting used to juggling their routines of waking up for classes, studying, working and attending social events. But with the new school year comes a struggle that every student is too familiar with; sleep deprivation.

Some of the effects of not having enough sleep are already known to most of us; reduced focus, yawning, fatigue and crankiness are just a few we experience when running on too little sleep. But what exactly happens during a good night’s rest that makes it so important that we get one? Well grab your blanket and pillows everyone, because we’re discussing our sleep cycle!

First stop on the sleep cycle is a phase known as non-rapid eye movement, or NREM. This phase consists of Stages 1 through 3, and typically lasts from an hour to 90 minutes, depending on how many cycles you’ve experienced so far that night.

Stage 1 sleep is also referred to as “drowsy sleep”. This is the type of sleep that occurs when you doze off momentarily in class. During this stage your muscles are still movable, so your eyes may roll or flutter open and closed. This is a very light stage of sleep, so you can easily go back to being fully awake. (Fun fact: That jerk you get when you’re asleep and feel like you’re falling down occurs in this stage! Researchers believe it has to do with an evolutionary process that kept humans from falling out of trees or other high places they slept in.)

The next step is Stage 2. This stage of sleep is still considered light, and lasts about 20 minutes. The body’s blood pressure drops, breathing and heart rate slow, and other metabolic processes slow down as the body prepares you to enter into deep sleep.

Stage 3 is the final stage before rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. Starting about 40 minutes after we fall asleep, Stage 3 is when our bodies restore themselves. Tissues are grown and repaired, energy is restored, and essential hormones, such as those for muscle and growth development, are released.

Occurring 90 minutes after we fall asleep is the final stage of the sleep cycle, REM sleep. In this phase our sleep is at its deepest, and it’s during this 10 minute window that we experience dreaming, along with other sleep time phenomena such as sleepwalking. As indicated by the name of the stage, our eyes rapidly dart back and forth, and our heart and breathing rates become irregular. (Fun fact: REM sleep is also known as “paradoxical sleep” because, though we are immobilized and deeply asleep, our brain activity is as active as if we were fully awake!)

So at this point you’re probably wondering how having less sleep, and fewer sleep cycle rounds, effects your overall well-being. After all, that’s what coffee is for right? Well, according to a new study, sleep deprivation can shrink our memory centers in our brain.

According to research conducted at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, mice that were deprived of sleep lost a significant portion of their hippocampus. The hippocampus is a small C-shaped organ located deep in the brain that’s involved in the storage of long-term memory gained from experiences.

So the next time you decide to throw caution to the wind and watch another episode of “Stranger Things” after 2 a.m., or stay up and cram for that first big test, just remember (or at least, do your best to remember) that you truly do need your sleep in order for both you and your brain to perform at their very best!


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