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Healthy Sleep 101: Why We Need Sleep

Understanding Sleep

In today's fast-paced world, a good night's sleep has become somewhat of an indulgence, falling down our list of priorities behind work, chores, social time, and entertainment. But sleep should not be a luxury—it is a vital part of life, as important to your physical and mental health as food and water.

Understanding the need for sleep is a relatively new research field, and scientists continue to study what happens to the body during sleep and why the process of sleep is so essential. We do know that sleep is necessary to maintain critical body functions, restore energy, repair muscle tissue, and allow the brain to process new information.

We also know what happens when the body doesn't get enough sleep. Sleep deprivation can cause a range of mental and physical problems, including impaired ability to think clearly, focus, react, and control your emotions. This can result in serious problems in the workplace and at home. Furthermore, chronic sleep deprivation has been shown to increase the risk for serious health conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity, and depression. It can also affect your immune system, reducing your body's ability to fight off infection and disease.

Think of a sleep-deprived body as a car with a flat tire; the car is running, but it’s moving slowly with fewer capabilities and less power. And the longer you drive in that condition, the more you'll damage the car. 

Our Problems Sleeping

Despite sleep's importance, the average American adult sleeps fewer than seven hours per night, and approximately 70 million Americans experience chronic sleep deprivation, sometimes resulting from sleep disorders such as insomnia, sleep apnea, narcolepsy, and restless legs syndrome (RLS). In contrast, an adult in 1910 slept an average of nine hours per night.

Our sleep habits change as we age. Most experts agree that an average adult needs approximately eight hours of sleep per night, while children and adolescents need nine or more hours per night.

But sleep assessment is not just about quantity; sleep quality is equally important. There are two main types of sleep: rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and non-REM sleep. Non-REM sleep is divided into four stages that range from light sleep to deep sleep. All stages of sleep are important, but deep sleep and REM sleep are the most critical. It is during these stages that the important restorative functions of sleep take place. 

Many people with sleep disorders may sleep an adequate amount of time but do not reach a deep enough stage of sleep to feel well rested and refreshed in the morning. Waking up frequently in the night can also prevent you from reaching the critical stages of sleep.

To some, sleep comes as naturally as blinking or walking. For others, getting enough quality sleep is a major challenge that requires lifestyle changes or medical intervention. There are numerous reasons for sleep problems, ranging from short-term stressors to serious, long-term sleep disorders. If you have chronic sleep problems, talk to your doctor about finding a solution or possible treatment options.

Content licensed from:

Written by: the Healthline Editorial Team
Medically reviewed : Jennifer Monti, MD, MPH

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your healthcare provider. Please consult a healthcare professional with any health concerns you may have.
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