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What is Sleep?

December 31, 2012

There are more than 20 definitions of "sleep" in a number of online dictionaries, but the one that seems most appropriate is a verb:

“To take the rest afforded by a suspension of voluntary bodily functions and the natural suspension, complete or partial, of consciousness; cease being awake”

The physiological definition of sleep

Physiologically, sleep is a process of restoration and renewal for the body. Scientists however do not yet have an explanation for why humans (and many other animals, birds and fish) have a need for sleep. They do know that sleep is not a passive process or "switching off" of body functions however. Sleep is believed to be important in many physiologic processes including the processing of experiences and the consolidation of all long and short term memories.

The importance of sleep is underscored by the symptoms experienced by those suffering from sleep problems. People suffering from sleep disorders do not get adequate or restorative sleep, and sleep deprivation is associated with a number of both physical and emotional disturbances. In addition, sleep is influenced by the circadian rhythms (regular body changes in mental and physical characteristics that occur in the course of about 24 hours). These are controlled by brain neurons that respond to light, temperature and hormones and other signals and comprise the body's biological clock. This clock helps regulate the "normal" awake and sleep cycles. Disruption of these cycles can make people sleepy at times people want to be awake. For example, travelers experience "jet lag" when they cross time zones. When a New Yorker arrives in Paris at midnight Paris time, his or her body continues to operate (their biological clock) on New York time. It may take some time (about 1-3 days) to reset a person's biologic clock, depending on how much it has been altered by the time change.

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