Why do we have to sleep?


iStockphoto | ThinkStock

iStockphoto | ThinkStock

Every day nurses witness firsthand the cumulative results of all science and medicine has discovered, and you get to use that information to help heal, cure and comfort your fellow humans.

But for all of the answers we now have about how our bodies work and how to keep them working, there seem to be just as many things we still don’t understand; many of them seem to be the simplest things of all. After all this time, the common cold is still nature’s long-running joke on us all, we don’t quite understand why we want to kiss each other and we don’t know why we need to sleep.

But we may be getting closer to an explanation for why we spend about one-third of our life unconscious in bed: sleep is a sort of janitorial service.

A series of new studies in the journal Science show that sleep allows your brain to perform a little physiological maintenance. An article in the New York Times about the studies puts it succinctly: “[Sleep is] clearing out all of the junk that has accumulated as a result of your daily thinking.”

While the “why” of sleep has up to now been a mystery, there are many studies proving that we do need sleep. But you don’t need an article in a scientific journal to tell you that. One day on the floor after a night spent tossing and turning proves how the lack of sleep can affect your work, mood and outlook. Nurses perhaps know this better than most.

The studies find that the fluid-filled area between the tissues cells of the brain is primarily responsible for waste cleanup – as you go through your day, your brain produces metabolites that must be removed. The amount of space that fluid takes up likely expands drastically when we are asleep. Therefore, that’s when we are getting a thorough cleaning that results in a fresh start every morning.

The importance of these studies isn’t just to understand why we sleep, but to determine what we can do with that information when we find it. One of the causes of diseases like Alzheimer’s is that the cleanup processes of the brain can eventually fail. Learning more about the exact nature of sleep may lead to improvements in the prevention of these diseases down the road.

As the Times article points out, if this information does prove to better explain sleep in humans (so far it has only been tested in mice), it will be interesting to see which way the science goes.

Is it more important to develop methods for guaranteeing better sleep or to discover ways of mimicking the brain’s custodial powers by “discovering that all-time miracle drug” which assures we never have to sleep again?

Which do you think is better? Which would be better for the nursing profession? You may want to sleep on it, but then let us know in the comments.


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