Many people suffer from sleep problems—sleep apnea, sleep irregularity, narcolepsy—but within primary literature (science from the source), there’s a lot of confusion and disagreement when scientists are asked: “what is sleep?”
The question of why we sleep is of big debate among sleep researchers. We know there are cycles in our sleep and that it’s a necessary component of life for most living creatures, but there’s such a vast number of factors that affect sleep. This makes it tough to pinpoint a common purpose except to “rest”. Thus far, scientists have been able to answer the question of how we sleep much more easily than “why”.
The mystery of sleep isn’t isolated to humans. For example, koalas sleep for 16 hours of their day. Squirrels and other small mammals will sleep for 4 hours at a time. Contrarily, nocturnal animals choose to sleep 6-10 during the heat of the day and operate only at night when their predators are least active.
Sleep isn’t just a form of rest and recharge. It can also be used as an adaptive survival strategy. While asleep, animals enter a dormant state where they are operating at a low level of energy, thereby allowing them to survive long periods of time without food. This extreme form of sleep is called hibernation. It’s used by animals who live in areas where the seasons change drastically from warm weather to freezing cold temperatures. North American grizzly bears are an example of a hibernating mammal. They sleep for months to endure the winter cold of North America that can reach temperatures of – 30C. It’s an adaptive use of sleep that allows them to minimize the amount of energy they expend and thus allow them to bear the harsh winter conditions.
From a personal perspective, I’m very much interested in how the human body copes with lack of sleep. My father has always had trouble sleeping. He’s been working at chemical manufacturing companies his entire life so I can’t help but wonder if this has caused his suffering. Likewise, my boyfriend has a lot of trouble maintaining a consistent sleep schedule. For him, he suffered from baby colic, a condition in infants that results in constant crying despite its otherwise good health. My boyfriend’s parents had a really hard time getting him to sleep within his first three months of life. They ended up remedying the sleeplessness by driving him around in the backseat of their car. As long as the car was moving, he would sleep soundly.
Sleep is a poorly understood facet of life, but there is no doubt that it is a necessary part of life. With modern advances in brain scanning technology and monitorization, I’m optimistic sleep scientists will solve the mystery soon.
Until then, make sure you get enough rest. Your body needs it!