One way to understand why we sleep is to look at what happens when we don't get enough:
- As you know if you have ever pulled an all-nighter, missing one night of sleep is not fatal. A person will generally be irritable during the next day and will either slow down (become tired easily) or will be totally wired because of adrenalin.
- If a person misses two nights of sleep, it gets worse. Concentration is difficult, and attention span falls by the wayside. Mistakes increase.
- After three days, a person will start to hallucinate and clear thinking is impossible. With continued wakefulness a person can lose grasp of reality. Rats forced to stay awake continuously will eventually die, proving that sleep is essential.
A person who gets just a few hours of sleep per night can experience many of the same problems over time.
Two other things are known to happen during sleep. Growth hormone in children is secreted during sleep, and chemicals important to the immune system are secreted during sleep. You can become more prone to disease if you don't get enough sleep, and a child's growth can be stunted by sleep deprivation.
But the question remains -- why do we need to sleep? No one really knows, but there are all kinds of theories, including these:
- Sleep gives the body a chance to repair muscles and other tissues, replace aging or dead cells, etc.
- Sleep gives the brain a chance to organize and archive memories. Dreams are thought by some to be part of this process.
- Sleep lowers our energy consumption, so we need three meals a day rather than four or five. Since we can't do anything in the dark anyway, we might as well "turn off" and save the energy.
- According to ScienceNewsOnline: Napless cats awaken interest in adenosine, sleep may be a way of recharging the brain, using adenosine as a signal that the brain needs to rest: "Since adenosine secretion reflects brain cell activity, rising concentrations of this chemical may be how the organ gauges that it has been burning up its energy reserves and needs to shut down for a while." Adenosine levels in the brain rise during wakefulness and decline during sleep.
What we all know is that, with a good night's sleep, everything looks and feels better in the morning. Both the brain and the body are refreshed and ready for a new day.
Dreams are another important part of sleep. We'll take a closer look at how dreams work in the next section.