Good Sleep, Good Life

In MedCo Explains

by Valeria Boers Trilles

Have you ever felt like you have twice as much work for the amount of time you have to complete it? For most people the solution to this problem is to push their systems’ limits. They increase their periods of wakefulness and decrease their hours of sleep. Take UCU for example. Who hasn’t danced till late hours on a Tuesday night, while having a class at 9 am the next morning? Who hasn’t pulled an all-nighter finishing an essay?

The truth is that we have all suffered from sleep deprivation at some time or another. Yet, are we aware of how important sleep is for the fine-tuning of our system? Do we know about the harmful side effects of sleep deprivation? Perhaps not.

Sleep remains one of the unsolved mysteries in neuroscience. Little is known about why we actually need to sleep and how it is induced. Several chemicals are widely believed to act as sleep-inducing factors, controlling our daily pattern of rest and activity. For example, cortisol and melatonin secretion fluctuate in a 24-hour light-dark cycle and therefore might be influencing our sleep. Although the exact molecular mechanisms underlying the onset of sleep are yet to be elucidated, many effects of sleep-deprivation have been largely studied and described.

The most obvious side effect of sleep deprivation is that the parts of the brain that control high level tasks — judgment, reasoning and self-monitoring – are impaired. ‘It is a little like getting drunk’, as Mark Mahowald, the head of the Minnesota Regional Sleep Disorder Center, describes the neurological effects of lack of sleep. Consequently, sleep-deprivation diminishes agility, degenerates concentration, and lowers our ability to carry out simple mathematical calculations, and it makes us irritable and moody.

Decreased mental performance is not the whole story. Chronic lack of sleep also alters our appetite and hampers the body’s ability to process and metabolize carbohydrates — substances which are stored as fats in the adipose tissue, ultimately leading to weight gain.

Neuroscientists also believe sleep is crucial in the process of learning. Memory consolidation, the conversion of new information into long-term memory, is believed to take place while sleep. That is why scientists affirm that a good night sleep before an exam ensures maximal performance.

Sleep-deprivation has also been linked to increased risk of cardiovascular disease, since individuals with sleep disorders exhibit tachycardia, hypertension and are more prone to heart attacks or strokes.

Finally, lack of sleep decreases the body’s immune function, manifested as a decrease in body temperature and white blood cell count. With a decreased number and activity of white blood cells — the ‘soldiers’ of our immune system — the body is exposed to diseases and is more likely to develop cancer.

These are only a few of the consequences of sleep deprivation. Will you still opt for another reckless partying or a fifth-all-nighter-in-a-row? Think whether your body really deserves all these risks.

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