Friday, March 09, 2007

Sleep Can Affect Every Part of Your Life

[Sleep is] the golden chain that ties health and our bodies together.
- Thomas Dekker

No one knows for certain why we need sleep. Obviously we need to rest our body and our mind, as they can't go on indefinitely without aperiod for recuperation. Or can they?

It's not certain why even that is necessary. Within each cell of our bodies is, in effect, a biological engine. It consumes fuel and expels waste, just like a mechanical engine that we might expect to be able to work endlessly (except for periods of downtime for maintenance and replacement of parts).

Why sleep and not just rest? So far as anyone knows, essentially the same types of recuperation could take place whether we rest or sleep. In fact, some people who live in considerable pain have little more than a few minutes of light sleep each day. The cause of their pain may get worse, but it doesn't seem to be as a result of not sleeping.

Dreams have always presented opportunities for people to speculate as to their meaning. Can dreams be interpreted or not? Recent research suggests that dreams consist of parts of our brain at work without connection to other parts that deal directly with reality. That is, without the active participation of the frontal lobes that keep us on track as members of a functioning society.

For that reason, dreams have no connection with morals or societal norms, because these are known to be functions of the frontal lobes. In other words, dreams must be considered to be amoral. If we had only the same parts of our brain operating when we were awake as are in gear when we dream, we could likely be considered insane.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that those who lead active intellectual lives in their waking hours, ones requiring a great deal of thinking, may have relatively mild dreams. Those who have few mental demands during their waking hours tend to have more active dreams, like adventure or horror movies. This may be more the brain getting exercise or relaxing while dreaming, as needed, rather than doing something warranting our attention as prophesy or warning.

Several kinds of animals--sharks and dophins would be two examples--have two sides to their brains, as we do, but they must continue swimming day and night or they would die (either suffocating or drawning, depending on the animal). To accommodate the necessary brain function to continue swimming, they rest one side of their brain at a time, usually for a couple of hours each side before switching off the active side and switching on the sleeping side of the brain. Some migrating birds are known to do the same in flight.

Some people believe that humans do the same thing at certain times. Have you ever tried to adjust your car radio and drive at the same time? You can be in complete control of your car as it moves along the road, but also give attention to your fiddling with the radio until you find the station you want. Then you may have trouble remembering driving but you will retain full memory of what you did with the radio.

The two sides of our brain can therefore function separately, even if they do so seldom. Do we sleep with one side of the brain awake and dreaming while the other is asleep and resting? Research says no, there is no evidence of "sidedness" when we sleep or dream.

Dreams occur as deep in the middle of our brain as we can imagine.

Compared to the full size of our brain, very little is used when we dream. At this stage of research, no one knows what the rest of the brain is doing when the few small parts are dreaming.

The brain is easily the most mysterious and complex organ of the body.

Moreover, it almost totally controls the health of the rest of our body.

Even when we sleep and are not dreaming, it continually sends messages to the other body parts that control our autonomic systems, such as breathing and blood pumping. Cells get fed 24/7.

But cells can't work 24/7. Even while they continue to eat from blood supplies, they take rest while we sleep so they can perform when we are awake. Hair and nails grow more when we sleep than when we are awake. But these are the least sentient parts of our body.

As Dekker suggests, we may not know exactly how sleep works to keep us going, but our bodies don't work well indefinitely without enough of it.

Bill Allin
Turning It Around: Causes and Cures for Today's Epidemic SocialProblems, striving to make sense of some of the mysteries of life.
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