Why Do We Wake Up?

By Ann Feg, MD

So why do we have to sleep, anyway? How much sleep do we need? Do we sleep differently as we get older? Do sleeping pills really help? What are dreams made of and why do we have nightmares? Why do we wake up, makes much more sense than the question, why do we sleep?


Why do we sleep?

Indeed, the question “Why do we wake up” makes much more sense than the question “Why do we sleep”!

“Why do we wake up” is an easily answerable question.

The body’s metabolic system shifts into the catabolic phase. The body’s cells are tearing themselves down in support of the body’s need for energy to be mobile, to obtain food and to procreate. Being awake, however, is a very destructive metabolic phase, something that the body can only tolerate for a matter of several hours, after which the body must revert to its ‘default’ mode. Sleep – the anabolic phase when damage is repaired, growth can take place and the body’s heightened immune defenses intensify their battle against the foreign organisms and viruses that have invaded the animal. For current research and excellent reading on the topic and importance of sleep, read Reuben Naiman’s book, The Healing Night.

Why do we need to sleep, anyway? The truth is, researchers don’t know why we have to sleep, although they have pots of theories.

One of the biggest complaints that doctors hear is insomnia. A recent poll by the National Science Foundation found that only 50% of Americans get a good night’s sleep a few nights each week.

Obviously, sleep rests the body, but in a different way than watching TV. The body grows and heals during sleep. The body’s metabolic system shifts into an anabolic phase of the metabolic cycle. Growth, healing and muscle building all take place when the body is in its anabolic phase – sleeping. The body’s immune system functions much better when we sleep. One leading theory says that enzyme balances cause states of wakefulness and sleep. For part of the night, the brain idles in an energy-conserving state called slow-wave sleep. Freed from the duties of consciousness, mobility which, metabolically speaking are destructive, the catabolic phase of metabolism, the body’s cells can focus on growth, healing and strengthening the immune system.

A good night’s sleep triggers changes in the brain that help to improve learning and memory. This explains why children, and especially infants, sleep so much more than adults. It may also be why people recovering from strokes sleep for long periods of time. Sleep researcher Matthew Walker says, ‘a period of sleep could help people improve their performance of ‘memory tasks,’ such as playing piano scales. If you’re trying to learn something difficult, like math or a foreign language, it doesn’t help to stay up late and study. You need sleep so your memory can retain the information it’s been exposed to. We didn’t know exactly how or why this was happening {but} by using an MRI {magnetic resonance imaging}, we can actually see which parts of the brain are active and which are inactive.

The MRI scans are showing us that brain regions shift dramatically during sleep. When you’re asleep, it seems as though you are shifting memory to more efficient storage regions within the brain. Consequently, when you awaken, memory tasks can be performed both more quickly and accurately and with less stress and anxiety.’

It has been suggested that sleep may well be the ‘default’ mode of life itself and that being awake is little more than a daily period of heightened awareness of one’s surroundings which is especially suited to doing things like finding food and reproducing.

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