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Why we need sleep

Everyone knows that we need sleep to function but you probably haven’t thought about the biological necessities of sleep.

Health Talk spoke with Conrad Iber, M.D., director of sleep medicine at the University of Minnesota, and got his perspective. Here’s what he had to say:

Probably since the beginning of human existence, we have wondered why we sleep.

Is it because we are avoiding nocturnal predators? Is our vision too bad to walk around safely at night? Does sleep replenish our bodies as parents tell children? Does sleep remove our worries as Shakespeare suggested in Macbeth? “Sleep knits up the raveled sleeve of care.”

Until the last few years even sleep researchers struggled with these questions. Certainly sleep has been shown to fine-tune memory and improves judgment. Investigators at the University of Wisconsin have recently shown that during sleep, a pruning process cleans out unneeded synaptic connections and makes more room for learning the next day.

Recent findings place Shakespeare closer to the answer. There is an even more dramatic process occurring every night: the brain’s daily collection of refuse is being removed. Sleep appears to be part of the waste removal system, according to researchers at the University of Rochester.

These findings may not be as attractive as Shakespeare’s image, but they do suggest that not getting enough sleep is indeed a very bad way to treat our brain and explains why we can’t think as well or even operate a motor vehicle as safely when we are sleep deprived.

These are not just interesting observations and the issues are not trivial.

The CDC estimates that more than 30 percent of us are not allowing this brain cleaning process to occur and those who get less than 7 hours of sleep are twice as likely to fall asleep while driving.

Insufficient sleep is associated with shorter life expectancy and a host of other health and cognitive problems.

It’s certainly worth the time getting a good night’s sleep.

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