Why Sleep is So Important for Your Brain

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Henry David Thoreau is quoted as saying, “Happiness is like a butterfly: the more you chase it, the more it will elude you, but if you turn your attention to other things, it will come and sit softly on your shoulder.” I would revise this statement by replacing “happiness” with “sleep” – it seems the more ardently you pursue some shut-eye, the harder it becomes to fall asleep. More and more Americans are not getting the recommended seven to eight hours of zzzz’s a night. Indeed, “About one-third of people living in first-world countries are required to wake up two hours before their circadian clocks, or ‘natural waking times,’ tell them to, and 69 percent of people have to wake up one hour before their bodies would like them to.” The evidence shows that this is a problem that can wreak havoc on our bodies and, of course, our brains.

One rodent study demonstrated that, “Prolonged lack of sleep led to 25 percent of certain brain cells dying,” in mice. The researchers replicated the type of “sleep loss common in modern life, through night shifts or long hours in the office.” Even more worrisome: these changes appear to be permanent.  Professor Sigrid Veasey says, “We now have evidence that sleep loss can lead to irreversible injury.”

These results were echoed in several studies conducted on humans. One study in particular “found that just one night of sleep deprivation was linked with signs of brain tissue loss, measured by blood levels of two brain molecules that usually increase after brain damage.” Additionally, a separate, longitudinal study took MRI’s of participant’s brains over the course of 3 ½ years. They discovered that, “Those with sleep problems had a more rapid decline in brain volume or size over the course of the study than those who slept well. The results were even more significant in participants over the age of 60.”

So what do these structural changes potentially mean for our daily cognitive functioning? For starters, it causes significant detriment to your memory processing systems. Studies show that getting enough sleep can help you remember things you learned the day before, particular in a classroom setting. Furthermore, one study found that sleep-deprived participants “were significantly more likely to say they had seen a news video when they in fact never had … [and] 38 percent of them incorporated false information the researchers had given them [while recounting a personal story].”

Lack of sleep is also harmful to our emotional wellbeing. First and foremost, there is a strong correlation between insomnia and depression. It also can cause us to become more irrational. One study “used functioning Magnetic Resonance Imaging to show that after sleep deprivation, the brain’s emotional centers were more than 60 percent more reactive.” Anyone who has ever pulled an all-nighter can probably attest to the fact that mood swings are a natural result.

Clearly, getting enough sleep every night is an essential part of our physical and mental health – just as important our nutrition and exercise. Getting your beauty sleep allows you function at an optimal level. 

(Editor’s note: If you enjoy this blog post, please consider a print or digital subscription to our magazine.)

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