Sweet dreams are made of these…
Annie Lennox

A common bit of conversation I have had with people over the years relates to the amount and quality of sleep we get each night. The usual response is that we don’t get enough and/or the sleep we do get is of dubious quality. One time, I had occasion to ask a group of young people in their twenties how much sleep they managed to get each night and the responses were startling. Most were going to school and working and one of the ways they managed was going without sleep. In fact a number of the group survived on very few hours a night.  I suspect this is the case for many people- there is simply too much to do (exams; wakeful children; work deadlines, fun times, and so on) and the only way to manage is by short changing ourselves on sleep. In fact we may even admire those who require very little sleep because they are able to get so much more done! But does not getting enough sleep matter?

According to Jennifer Gardy, a faculty member at the University of British Columbia, it certainly does. In an eye-opening interview on the CBC’s The Current (see links below; also profiled on The Nature of Things), Gardy talks about the research documenting the impact of sleep on our minds and bodies. Sleep is typically seen as restorative, but this view assumes sleep to be a passive process.  Cognitive neuroscientist Robert Stickgold, Director of the Centre for Sleep and Cognition at Harvard, argues that sleep is a highly active process- one that enables us to process the day’s events and attach meaning to them.  Rather than re-play events or memories in our minds, something many of us do during the day, we engage in a process of synthesis during sleep in which we pull together the disparate experiences in order to make sense of the day. Stickgold talks about sleep enabling us to get the gist of experiences and that helps us create meaning and develop insight that we use going forward. Through a series of experiments, he has demonstrated that sleep has a profound impact on what we are able to do the next day.

One interesting finding that Jennifer Gardy described in discussing the research of Jeff Iliff, is that during sleep, the brain clears away the detritus that accumulates in the brain. In our bodies, the lymphatic system carries out this function so the stuff we don’t need can be excreted. In the brain, it is the cerebrospinal fluid that carries away waste by travelling down the outside of the blood vessels. This process of the brain cleaning itself only happens when we sleep. And Gardy observes that this debris – if it includes what she refers to as an amyloid beta protein- can have serious consequences, including potential implications for the development of conditions such as Alzheimer’s.

So what else does sleep do? A few things include:

  • Hormonal function is improved- For example, growth hormone is secreted during sleep and insulin regulation is controlled.
  • Immune function is enhanced.
  • Memory improves as does the ability to problem solve- insufficient sleep impairs decision making.
  • Weight loss is more likely with adequate sleep. In part due to hormone function, appetite is increased, including a craving for high calorie foods, when we don’t get enough sleep.

In short, we function much better physically and mentally with sleep and these benefits stand us in good stead over the long term.

All of this is well and good but getting to sleep at a decent time can be a challenge. We live in a world of light (cell phones; street lights; screens of all kinds etc.) and demands on our time.  I confess I used to be able – with the help of coffee- to manage on little sleep. I can’t do that anymore without feeling like I’m walking around in a daze. The body protests loudly and the body never lies.

The bottom line is that we need sleep. Rather than view sleep as yet another thing to fit into the day, perhaps we can begin to see it as a daily practice that is not only beneficial to our system but is also one we come to look forward to. Glorious slumber… another opportunity to treat ourselves wonderfully well!

Sweet dreams!

The content for this posting is drawn from both the CBC interview with Jennifer Gardy and Robert Stickgold’s TED talk- see the links below:




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