Why do we sleep?

“Why do we need sleep at all? Is there a single primary function of sleep, or does sleep serve many functions?”

Those questions were posed by scientists at the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard University in a study entitled ‘Why Do We Sleep, Anyway?

It seems bizarre that such a question could have befuddled scientists for so long.

After all, we know that, as humans, sleep affects almost every single tissue in the body.

Failure to obtain an adequate amount of sleep increases the likelihood of disorders including high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, depression, and obesity.

If we get enough sleep, however, then it improves our cognitive function, betters our mood and lowers the risk of illness.

All of the by-products are well-known, but it does not answer the fundamental question of why will spend around one third of our existence in slumber.

There are plenty of theories, many of which have are based on a solid foundation of science.

Sleeping during the night allows diurnal creatures such as humans to be fully rested and ready for evolutionary activities such as hunting and fighting during the day.

There is also the restorative effect it has on our muscles and tissue, not to mention the release of crucial growth hormones to aid our physical development.

Sleep is also crucial for brain plasticity, where the brain literally re-organizes itself by forming new connections between neurons to help us create new memories.

As if that was not enough, sleep is also the time for our brains to effectively flush harmful toxins out of its system.

Research from the University of California Berkeley suggests a lack of sleep is a channel through which the beta-amyloid protein – which is believed to trigger Alzheimer’s disease – attacks the brain’s long-term memory.

But while the question of why continues to provoke debate among scientists, there is little argument over the benefit of sleep – or the fact that we all need it.

Countless experiments – particularly on rodents – show that animals will eventually die if they do not get enough sleep.

So it is with humans, who see drops in immunity levels, major increases in cardiovascular stress and significant impairment of cognitive function, to name but a few physical impairments if deprived of sleep.

The ability to thermo-regulate is also severely affected by a lack of sleep.

This is something of a double-edged sword given the importance of reducing one’s core temperature by 2 to 3 degrees Fahrenheit to help initiate sleep.

Not only that, but that temperature change must then be maintained during sleep to ensure continuous, high-quality rest.

This conundrum has led to significant technological steps forward, with smart sleep systems such as the Moona being introduced to initiate and maintain a decent night’s rest.

As an advanced cooling pillow, it works by spreading warm or cold water in minute tubes throughout, helping reduce the body’s core temperature head-first.

A small bedside heating unit helps maintain a constant temperature throughout the night, before slowly warming the pillow to encourage a gradual waking-up process when required.

Given that huge numbers of blood vessels – known as the arteriovenous anastomoses – are located around the head and neck, it means altering their temperature can quickly bring about the decrease required to induce, and maintain, sleep.

Of course, this would be counter-productive if the Moona itself was not comfortable. But, given it is made of soft memory foam and the pad itself contains no electronics, it is also designed with comfort in mind. It is made, after all, to be slept on.

The question of exactly why may still remain unclear, but trying to find an answer to this head-scratcher has helped us discover a huge amount about sleep – not least its benefits.

The dangers of inadequate sleep are also well-established, and considering between 50 and 70 million Americans suffer from sleep-related problems, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the issue is more prevalent than many realize.

For that reason, anything that can help bring about and maintain a restful night’s sleep is likely to have numerous far-reaching benefits for our health and well-being.