What Happens To Your Body When You're Sleeping?

I absolutely love to sleep, with a passion that perhaps only a recovering insomniac like myself can muster. For a long period of time, I considered myself lucky if I was blessed enough to get four whole hours of shut-eye. Unsurprisingly, the lack of sleep took a toll on my physical and mental health — I caught every cold that went around school or work, my memory consistently felt foggy, and I wasn't always in the happiest mood. I didn't spend much time thinking about all these side effects while they were happening because, well, I was just too darn tired and too busy daydreaming about my bed. But our bodies do many things while we're sleeping and unlike the negative side effects of missing sleep, they're mainly beneficial to our health.

Most of us know the general health recommendation that adults get seven to eight hours of sleep nightly. But even for people who don't wrestle with insomnia, this is often easier said than done. After all, it means that we're asleep for approximately one-third of our lives — in a culture where there's constant pressure to be "doing it all." Foregoing sleep is a common solution to a seemingly impossible to-do list, and I've heard many people comment that they feel guilty when they waste an entire eight hours sleeping. However, the recommendation that we sleep this much doesn't come out of nowhere — it's the result of many studies that show the long-term risks of not getting enough sleep.

We should stop thinking of sleep as unproductive, because it's really quite the opposite. It keeps our minds and bodies healthy enough to make the most of those 16-17 hours we do spend awake. Here are seven important things that happen to your body when you're slumbering:

1. Your Muscles Become Paralyzed

When you enter the REM phase of sleep, your muscles become temporarily paralyzed. Yes, this sounds a little unsettling, but it's for the best — we're most likely to dream during an REM cycle, and muscle paralysis prevents us from acting out whatever is happening in our dreams. This protects both you and your bed-mate — especially if you're prone to dreaming of strange and dramatic things.

2. Your Brain Filters Memories

Every day, we are exposed to a ton of information — from colleagues, friends, family, the news, etc. And, to put it kindly, a whole lot of what we're told isn't terribly important and our brains just don't have the space for it. Luckily, our brains separate important information from useless facts while we're sleeping. When we wake up, we'll remember what we need to, and the rest will have been filtered out. (No offense to the co-worker who just told you a long-winded story about a family gathering.)

3. You Produce Growth Hormones

As it turns out, beauty sleep is not a myth. When you're in a deep sleep, your body produces more growth hormones than it does when you're awake. This allows your skin and cell tissues to repair themselves naturally. Plus, collagen is created while you slumber and it strengthens your skin. So if you've ever woken up from a restful night of sleep and thought you looked better than ever — you weren't imagining it!

4. Your Immune System Is Hard At Work

One of the main reasons it's important to get enough shut-eye is because we're far more likely to fall victim to colds, flus, and viruses when we're sleep-deprived. A type of proteins called cytokines are released while we're asleep — and they're critical to fighting off illnesses and infections. If you're exposed to a virus, you're more likely to get sick if you don't get a good night's sleep. So, while it's always important to sleep seven to eight hours each night, you should definitely make it a priority during cold and flu season, or any time there's a bug going around your office.

5. Your Heart Rate & Blood Pressure Drop

While you're asleep, your heart rate and blood pressure both drop by about 10 percent. This dip gives your heart a much-needed rest and studies have shown that people who don't get enough sleep are at a greater risk for developing heart diseases.

6. You Wake Up Multiple Times Each Hour

I'm not talking about those frustrating nights when you can't seem to stay asleep for longer than 20 minutes. Every night as you cycle through the various phases of sleep, you awaken briefly each time — and this can occur up to 15 times each hour. So, why don't we remember it in the morning? The awakenings are all so brief that they're immediately erased from our memories — and they don't mean we got a poor night's sleep.

7. You Feel Like You're Falling

This one doesn't happen every night, but we've all experienced the weird bedtime sensation of feeling like we're falling, then abruptly jerking awake. Scientists call this a hypnic jerk, and the exact cause is unknown. It generally happens right as we're about to fall asleep, and experts have suggested several theories as to why. They include: the brain's natural impulses to sleep and stay awake are fighting one another, our energy from the day is making one last burst, and our bodies haven't caught up to present day and still think we're primates who are about to fall out of a tree (this one is my personal favorite).

When you wake up feeling well-rested, don't forget to thank your body for all the hard work it did overnight. After all, it's the reason you're so beautiful and so much less likely to catch a cold.

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