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Why do we *actually* sleep?

Seriously, what's the point?

We all know that we need sleep. Without enough of it we can feel weak and lethargic, suffer brain fog and feel unwell.

The moment it starts to get dark outside, our bodies seem to just know that it’s time to start unwinding and prepping for a good night’s sleep.

But when you actually think about it, it’s pretty weird.

Thinking deeply about the fact that we sleep is a bit like looking up at the sky and realising the planet is just a floating spherical mass.

It’s one of those existential things that comes with such a sense of philosophical mystery, we’d rather just let it happen, no questions asked.

Delving into the concept that our conscious minds shut down for a set amount of hours every day to allow our bodies to recharge like robots? Rather not, thanks.

But with the latest YouGov figures showing that only one in five Brits are getting their full eight hours of sleep a night, we think now could be the time to address some things.

Because although questions around why we sleep and what happens while we sleep have been the subject of scientific studies for decades, we do know one thing for sure: getting enough sleep is really important for our health.

So, in a bid to encourage us to embrace the power of sleep, we’re here to lift the lid on exactly why we sleep, what it is and why it’s so important (without getting too deep).

Why do we sleep?

When it comes to the science around sleep, consider this the million pound question. The truth is, scientists have been trying to figure out the why behind sleep for centuries, and while there are a whole bunch of theories, there isn’t really a solid answer.

What we do know, however, is that our bodies have a natural internal body clock encouraging us to sleep, called the circadian rhythm.

It is defined by Oxford University as 24-hour cycles of biological processes that exist in every living thing.

Housed somewhere in our brains, our circadian rhythm is responsible for making sure our bodies are doing the right thing at the right time of the day, regulating when we sleep and when we wake up.

Some theories that scientists have around why we sleep include energy conservation, cell repair and restoration and potentially even brain development.

What happens when we sleep?

While science can’t yet tell us for fact why we sleep, understanding what happens when we sleep is crucial in getting to the bottom of the mystery and helps illustrate its importance.

When we sleep, a whole bunch of things happen in our bodies that are evidently crucial for our health.

During the night, we go through four stages of sleep, involving both REM (rapid eye movement) and non-REM sleeping.

The first three stages of sleep involve non-REM sleep. During these stages the brain, heart and breathing slows down and become more regular, your body temperature drops, your eye movement stops and muscles are totally relaxed.

In the fourth stage of sleep (REM), brain activity surges and it is during this phase that we experience vivid or bizarre dreams.

But throughout our entire sleep cycle, our hormone levels are also in constant fluctuation. While we’re asleep, it is thought that our brain reorganises itself for optimum function, cells repair themselves and energy is restored.

What happens if we don’t get enough sleep?

And so we reach the crux of the matter. Despite the fact that, for the most part, we know very little about the whats and the whys of sleep, one thing we know remarkably well is that not getting enough of it is detrimental to health.

In fact, the reason that sleep deprivation studies are so scarce is because depriving the body of sleep is deemed incredibly damaging and dangerous.

The Sleep and Circadian Neuroscience Institute at Oxford University says: “The importance of sleep is often underappreciated.

Sleep is a fundamental biological process of vital importance for health, and insufficient or disrupted sleep have been linked to a broad range of neurological and metabolic disorders.”

The NHS recommends adults get eight hours of good-quality sleep a night in order to function properly.

It warns that not only can sleepless nights give us brain fog, affect our mood and increase our risk of injury and accidents, but a continued lack of sleep can make you prone to conditions such as obesity, heart disease, hypertension and diabetes.

Getting enough, on the other hand, can help boost immunity and improve mental wellbeing.

So next time you find yourselves staving off a few hours of sleep here and there, remember that sleep is one of our most important bodily functions, and denying it can cause far more harm than good.

This story originally appeared on Glamour UK

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