When we close our eyes and rest our bodies for the night, our brains do not stop working. In ways that scientists are just beginning to understand, sleep is an important part of learning, memorization, and physical restoration that is as vital to the body as air, water, and food.
The transition to sleep is a multistep process that involves many changes to the body. A chemical, adenosine, builds up in the blood and creates a feeling of drowsiness. Once the lights go down, the brain begins producing melatonin....a hormone that helps us doze in the dark and wake up in the presence of light.
Sleep involves a cycle of four incremental stages progressing from shallow to deep, followed by a rapid eye movement (REM) stage that includes accelerated breathing, back-and-forth eye twitching, and temporary limb paralysis.
REM sleep seems to produce dreams, aid in overnight memorization, and contribute to restoration and alertness the next day.
Most people need 7 to 8 hours of sleep a night to function optimally the next day. Periods of prolonged sleep deprivation can cause fatigue and impairment and raise a person's risk of diabetes, heart disease, and depression. Lack of sleep also alters levels of appetite and satiety hormones, leading sleepy people to eat more.
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