Is sleep that important?

WASHINGTON — We spend one-third of our lives doing it, and our children don’t do it enough. But without it, our mental and physical health would suffer.

So yes, sleep is pretty important.

“The single most important behavioral experience that we have is sleep,” says Russell Foster, a professor of Circadian Neuroscience at the University of Oxford. “And yet for most of us, we don’t give sleep a second thought.”

Foster spoke about the importance of sleep at a recent TED conference. On average, people sleep 36 percent of their lives. Still, most of us are sleep-deprived.

That makes us gain weight, make poor judgments, overstress and become dangerous. “It’s been estimated that 31 percent of drivers will fall asleep at the wheel at least once in their lives.” Foster says.

We need sleep for three reasons, Foster says.

  • Restoring energy burned during the day
  • Saving calories (but not many)
  • Brain processing and memory consolidation — “After you learn a task and you sleep deprive individuals, that ability to learn that task is smashed,” Foster says.

Getting good sleep isn’t just laying down a memory and recalling it. Our brains become more creative with sleep. The neural connections that are so important are strengthened while those less important tend to disappear.

“Sleep is not an indulgence,” Foster says. “The critical thing to realize is, that if you don’t sleep, you don’t fly.”

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