Does Resting Offer Any Benefits of Real Sleep? Because My Sleepless Nights and I Need to Know

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Sometimes it's just not possible to get a good night's sleep; perhaps you drank all the coffee during the day, or had a few zzz's-disturbing glasses of wine at dinner, or are just stressed AF about the implications of being alive in 2019 (hi, climate crisis!). Whatever the reason, there you are, lying awake in bed at 2 a.m.—and super-bummed about it. But you try and stay calm, rationalizing to yourself that though you're not actually drifting off, resting surely factors into your restorative quotient and appeals to the importance of sleep. Or does such a convenient line of thinking only exist in the dreams so many of us can't actually access? Because I need to know, once and for all, whether resting can be as legitimately, and effectively restorative as sleep, or if I'm totally kidding myself.

Well, it turns out there are some basic yet key differences that make sleep distinct from rest. "They're very different states," says Elliott Exar, MD, a sleep specialist with John Hopkins Medicine. Rest, he says, is a waking state in which you're not actively engaged in anything, physically or mentally (including screens), whereas sleep is a non-waking state during which specific, involuntary activity takes place in the brain and body. Because they're disparate and serve different functions, the verdict, according to Dr. Exar, is a solid no: rest cannot straight-up stand in for the importance of sleep, its more advanced and involved cousin. "There are restorative and regenerative properties of sleep that don't happen during during any other state," says Dr. Exar.

Sleep specialist Richard Castriotta, MD, agrees with Dr. Exar's characterization, adding that while not all facets of the importance of sleep are understood, it certainly serves critical biological functions: "Lots of things happen, especially in the brain, during REM sleep," he says. "Our brain is actually at least as active as it is during the day and sometimes more so. [This] allows us to be clear-thinking and astute while we're awake." One example he gives is that memories are consolidated during sleep, which is how people learn—and, to be clear, this isn't equivalent to daydreams. Meaning, the memory work doesn't occur during rest, unless you're napping—as in, actually sleeping and not conscious for a short period of time. In this case, you're reaping some of the restorative benefits of sleep.

"There are restorative and regenerative properties of sleep that don't happen during during any other state." —sleep specialist Elliott Exar, MD

So if you're just lying in bed at night, unable to sleep, resting won't necessarily be beneficial and may, in fact, hurt your shot of falling into slumber. "Sometimes when people can't sleep they tend to stay in bed and think, 'Well, I'm not sleeping but at least I’m resting.' That can actually worsen insomnia because the more time spent in bed awake, the more you expose the bedroom environment to wakefulness," Dr. Exar says, adding this this can give way to psychosocial or psychophysiological insomnia, which is a type of insomnia characterized by thoughts about not sleeping being the very culprit that's keeping you up. If you haven't fallen asleep within 30 minutes of going to bed, he recommends getting up and moving to another room, where you should engage in a restful activity such as reading (still no screens!) until you feel sleepy, at which point you should go back to bed.

This doesn't mean, however, that there are no benefits to consciously resting in specific instances. When someone says they're tired, Dr. Castriotta says, it can actually mean two different things. One is that they're fatigued, and the other is that they're sleepy. "Rest might help fatigue, but the only thing that helps sleepiness is sleep," he says. One way to differentiate is to note whether lying down for a few minutes might lead you to easily drift off versus let your mind continue to race despite being horizontal. If you're fatigued, Dr. Castriotta says a wakeful pause can help to rest your working muscles; meanwhile, Dr. Exar believes rest should be integrated into your daily routine regardless. "It's important to have downtime especially now, given the way life is—there's a lot of stress and constant input from electronic devices," he says. "If you're able to rest once or twice a day, you may feel better and more productive."

"Rest might help fatigue, but the only thing that helps sleepiness is sleep," —sleep specialist Richard Castriotta, MD

It's also worth noting that sleep offers the benefits of rest, and then some. "During sleep, we get rest as well because we have a decrease in all the muscle functions," Dr. Castriotta explains. "So there is a restorative function to sleep that parallels rest but is on a whole different order because the muscles are much more rested."

In other words, the (familiar) moral of the story may just be to prioritize sleep as much as possible—sorry, no shortcuts—and use rest as a supplemental activity when your body is fatigued and/or your mind is overwhelmed. "Nothing can substitute for an adequate amount of sleep each night," reiterates Dr. Exar.

Understand the importance of sleep, but need more help snoozing? Consider introducing AI into the bedroom with a sleep robot. If that's a bit out there for you, maybe try a (StrangerThings) body pillow instead. 

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