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In today's fast-paced, competitive society, it's no wonder long-standing cliches like "You snooze, you lose," still have merit. But, as any neurologist can tell you, sleep is not a waste of time. It is as vital to the nervous system as food, water and air.

"Sleep is a restorative process that allows the brain to reboot," explains Teresa Tran-Lim, MD, a neurologist at Park Nicollet Clinic-Meadowbrook. It streamlines thinking, improves coordination, regulates hormones and boosts the immune system.

Improving mind, mood and muscles

During sleep, the brain alternates between various stages. During REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, people do their most active dreaming. This stage helps improve concentration, retain memories, process emotions and relieve stress. Similarly, a lack of sleep can impair concentration, decision-making and moods.

During the "deep sleep" stage, blood flow to the brain is decreased and redirected toward the body, restoring muscles and nerves. This helps ensure smooth coordination and quick reaction time. Driving when sleep deprived can be as dangerous as driving drunk. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says sleep deprivation contributes to more than 100,000 accidents and 1,500 deaths each year. Deep sleep also helps boost the immune system, which fights infection and disease.

Balancing hormones

When you sleep, your body produces and regulates hormones. Melatonin helps regulate the sleep-wake cycle known as circadian rhythm. Sometimes people who travel across time zones take over-the-counter melatonin to help them cope with jet lag.

Sleep reduces cortisol, a stress hormone that acts as a stimulant. When people are sleep deprived, their cortisol levels can increase, which can lead to high blood pressure, psychological disturbances and difficulties with glucose metabolism.

Importance of good sleep habits

Just as the body functions best with quality food, the brain and nervous system function best with good, restorative sleep. Doctors recommend seven hours to eight hours of uninterrupted sleep in a quiet, dark and comfortable environment. It helps to go to bed and get up at approximately the same time every day, and avoid stimulants several hours before going to bed.

"If you frequently have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, see a doctor or sleep specialist who can diagnose the cause of your sleep disturbance," Dr. Tran-Lim says. "All too often, over-the-counter medications treat the symptoms without addressing the underlying cause."