When examining the possibility of increasing maximum human lifespan, people tend to pay very little attention to sleep patterns. In a way this is only natural since what we do during the third of our lives that we spend sleeping remains an utter mystery to most of the human population.
The few studies that have been conducted, generally conclude that:
At night, melatonin, a hormone, gets produced by the pineal gland. Melatonin makes us feel drowsy and contributes to helping us achieve a restful night’s sleep. In addition to helping us sleep, melatonin is an antioxidant that aids in supporting our immune system. Sleep deprivation can weaken our immune system making us more vulnerable to diseases and disorders from the common cold to diabetes. When we sleep our immune systems are given a chance to replenish and attack any disease causing bacteria or viruses we may have encountered. The loss of sleep impairs the body’s ability to sustain a properly functioning immune system. Sleep deprivation additionally leads to stress which weakens our immune system further. (via EZine Articles)
Scientists believe having lower melatonin levels can raise the risk of developing cancer. Light shuts down melatonin production, so people working in artificial light at night may have lower melatonin levels. (via gCaptain)
Having worked the 10p.m to 8a.m shift for a few months myself, I can attest to the fact that it is difficult to get the proper amount of rest and that the energy levels are generally much lower than those found among people working the day shift. Not to mention the effects that working the night shift has on one’s social life and eating habits.
Yet while I think that giving the immune system a chance to function properly and melatonin production are both excellent explanations of why we need sleep, they do not touch on some of the most important aspects of why sleep is so essential that we can no more live without it than we can live without water. After all just sitting in a chair not doing anything in the dark is supposed to be restful, isn’t it?
Unlike some in the scientific community I do not believe that there is any point during sleep in which our consciousness blacks out. Having practiced mind body awareness and kept a dream journal for years, I have come to the conclusion that I dream every night, and on nights when I used to not remember dreaming of anything, were nights when I literally forgot what I was dreaming about.
Being somewhat on the spiritual side, despite my interest in longevity and vitality, I do not believe that people are completely physical beings. Which is to say that I believe people have souls. And at the end of the day, while it very important to do things that will keep our physical bodies healthy (like eating right), it is our soul that energizes and animates our body.
Since sleep quietens our minds and slows our bodily functions, our soul gets the opportunity to slip from our physical bodies, while maintaining a connection to them, into more fine energy dimensions where it can re-energize before coming back to the physical plane.
Without sleep the soul would not have the energy to keep the body functioning properly, but would still be confined in it, while the body lived. In fact, in the old days the cruelest torture that could be inflicted upon a man was not considered physical pain, but sleep deprivation. In a matter of days it drove people insane, after which they died.
Hence, whether one agrees with my spiritual opinion or not, I think that there can be no looking at longevity or vitality without examining a person’s sleeping habits. It is not so much the quantity of sleep that matters, as the quality. Sleep well, in a room full of fresh air, in a comfortable, yet firm bed, in darkness and in silence.