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What is sleep and why is it important?

Sleep is a mysterious state of being. Once a day (or more if you nap), you nod off into a state of altered consciousness and unawareness of your surroundings. But what exactly goes on in your brain during those all important hours of rest and how does it affect the rest of your body?

What is sleep and why is it important?

Sleep is a state of altered consciousness and reduced interactions with our surroundings. During sleep we alternate between REM (rapid eye movement) and non-REM sleep. Non-REM sleep comprises 4 distinct phases with different characteristics. Sleep is a restorative process in which both body and brain undergo repair. It also has a “detox” effect. Good sleep is essential to memory function, wound healing, immune function and how hormones operate in our bodies. It is especially vital to the proper growth, general health and wellbeing of children. Childhood skin conditions such as atopic dermatitis can interfere with sleep and require specific eczema-prone skincare to soothe itching and promote restful sleep.

What exactly is sleep?

For most of us, the answer would appear fairly simple. It’s when you doze off and are unaware of your surroundings for a period of time. After a while, you wake up, hopefully feeling energised and refreshed. In more scientific terms, sleep is a recurring state of altered consciousness and reduced interactions with our surroundings in which our bodies’ sensory functions and voluntary muscles are inhibited.

The precise processes at work in the brain and the rest of the body during sleep are complex and still being researched today. Read on for an overview of what happens during sleep, and why those hours of rest are quite so important, for adults and particularly in children.

What are the stages of sleep?

As we sleep, we cycle between two distinct kinds of sleep: REM (rapid eye movement) sleep and non-REM sleep. It all starts with non-REM sleep, which is made up of 4 distinct stages.

  • The first is an in-between phase between waking and sleeping
  • The second is light sleep, in which your heart rate and breathing are regulated and your body temperature drops
  • The third and fourth stages are deep sleep
  • We then cycle into REM sleep, characterised by rapid eye movements behind closed lids. During this phase, our brain waves are actually quite similar to those we have while awake. Our breathing rate increases, and our muscles are temporarily paralysed as we dream. We usually cycle through these two types of sleep four or five times a night. This pattern of sleep is true for both adults and children.

Why is sleep so important?

Sleep is a crucial restorative process

As we sleep, both the body and the brain undergo restoration and repair. During sleep, the body is able to heal itself and remove metabolic waste products that build up during periods of activity*.  This is particularly true of the brain, where toxins such as reactive oxygen species are “flushed out” at a faster rate during sleep compared with wakefulness**.  In both cases, the “detox effect” of sleep is thought to be due to the reduced rate of body metabolism, allowing restorative processes to take over.

The brain remains quite active during sleep, and quality sleep has been shown to be essential for the laying down and consolidation of new memories***.  Beyond detoxifying the body, sleep is also a period of growth and repair. Anabolic (growth-promoting) hormones such as human growth hormone are preferentially secreted during sleep. This is thought to be the reason why sleep is essential for proper wound healing****.  New functions of sleep are being discovered all the time, for example it is now known to have a vital effect on maintaining the immune system and the way hormones function in our bodies*****.

Why sleep is especially important for kids

Sleep is essential to children’s health and development

Sleep is essential to the health and wellbeing of both adults and children, but the latter are especially dependent on quality rest and longer sleeping hours. Click HERE for information on the recommended sleeping times for children of different ages.

Studies have shown that kids who regularly get enough quality sleep have improved attention, behaviour, learning, memory, and overall mental and physical health. Not getting enough sleep can lead to high blood pressure, obesity and even depression. Since growth hormone is preferentially secreted during sleep, chronic (long-term) sleep deprivation can interfere with children’s growth too.

Click HERE to find out more about sleep’s overall impact on health and quality of life.

Eczema: A top cause of sleep loss in children

Atopic dermatitis can interfere with children’s sleep

If your child has atopic dermatitis (eczema), this is not to be overlooked as a potential cause for sleep disruption. 90% of children with eczema itch and scratch during the night, causing them to lose a full hour’s sleep each night. Part of their bedtime routine should include suitable eczema-prone skincare products such as LIPIKAR Syndet AP+ at bathtime followed by a rich emollient like LIPIKAR Baume AP+ before bed. These simple steps can reduce scratching by half and set your child up for a restful night… and a much perkier morning after!

Click HERE to read more about Children with ezcema and sleep problems.

And HERE for details of a clinical study on how eczema-prone skincare can improve sleep quality and overall quality of life.

* Raymond Cespuglio, Damien Colas, & Sabine Gautier-Sauvigné, "Energy Processes Underlying the Sleep Wake Cycle"; Chapter 1 in Parmeggiani & Velluti (2005).
** "Brain may flush out toxins during sleep". National Institutes of Health. Archived from the original on January 16, 2014.
*** https://www.ninds.nih.gov/Disorders/Patient-Caregiver-Education/Understanding-Sleep
**** Gümüştekín K, Seven B, Karabulut N, Aktaş O, Gürsan N, Aslan S, Keleş M, Varoglu E, Dane S (2004). "Effects of sleep deprivation, nicotine, and selenium on wound healing in rats". International Journal of Neuroscience. 114 (11): 1433–1442. doi:10.1080/00207450490509168. PMID 15636354.
***** "Sleep-wake cycle: its physiology and impact on health" (PDF). National Sleep Foundation. 2006. Retrieved 24 May 2017.[permanent dead link]

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