By Shannon Spence
Regardless of how much emphasis you place on your sleeping habits, experts agree that sleep is fundamental for a lifetime of good health. And that applies to our mental health, too. For centuries, scientists and philosophers have been exploring why people sleep and how it impacts the brain. Evidence suggests that sleep deprivation blocks certain restorative functions our brains would otherwise perform as we sleep. In doing so, we inhibit and, in some cases, damage our ability to stay sharp during waking hours.
Much like other organs that control the functions of our bodies, the brain has the ability to repair itself. The difference is that parts of the brain are more active at night than any other time, meaning a lot of “cleaning house” happens while we sleep. P. Murali Doraiswamy, MD, a brain researcher at Duke University in Durham, N.C., notes that our brains do some impressive work when we turn in for the night.1
Did you know? Humans spend up to one-third of our lives asleep. While there is a general consensus that getting seven to eight hours of sleep is ideal, the National Sleep Foundation recommends specific sleep durations based on age.2
Getting rid of toxins The glymphatic system is a drainage system in the brain that clears out and recycles toxins. One protein that’s recycled during sleep helps with the development of amyloid plaque, which has been linked to Alzheimer’s. While Alzheimer’s is not necessarily caused by sleep deprivation, it may be a factor.
Repairing daily damage Chronic sleep deprivation can lead to irreversible brain damage. According to a University of Pennsylvania animal study, being awake for long periods of time can damage neurons that help us stay alert and cognizant. From other studies, scientists have concluded that chemicals released during deep sleep are crucial for repairing the body, including the brain.
Cataloging the day On a daily basis, your brain is exposed to thousands of stimuli, which it cannot process all at once. As a result, much of what you see, hear, and feel is processed while you sleep. If you think those four or five hours of sleep each night are enough to get by, you might want to think twice. Memory tests show you’re definitely not functioning at your best.
1 Gabrielle DeGroot Redford, “Why Sleep is Precious for Staying Sharp,” AARP, http://www.aarp.org/health/brain-health/info-2014/sleep-for-brain-health.html
2 “How Much Sleep Do We Really Need?” National Sleep Foundation, https://sleepfoundation.org/how-sleep-works/how-much-sleep-do-we-really-need
3 Amy Paturel, “Eat Your Way to Brain Health,” AARP, http://www.aarp.org/health/brain-health/info-2015/brain-diet.html?intcmp=AE-HEA-RELBOX-EWHERE