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Mind » Sleep

What Sleep Deprivation Does To Your Brain And How To Combat It

By Bridget Webber
Updated January 27, 2015

Stay awake too long and you may get depressed.
The brain is the seat of consciousness and the home of the “I-function” (our sense of self). It is also the organ that is most affected by sleep deprivation.

Your heart will go on beating and your lungs will go on expanding and contracting as you remain awake longer and longer, but the efficiency of your brain will begin to wane.

Without sleep, your concentration falters, your mood worsens, your memory fails more and more frequently, and you may even begin to hallucinate.

Chronic sleep deprivation can even permanently damage your brain, making it more likely that you’ll develop dementia in the future.

Clearly, adequate sleep is important for your cognitive function and mental health – but how do you get enough sleep? How do you know how much sleep is enough for you? What do you do when the demands of life eat into your recovery time? Why does lack of sleep have so many dire consequences? Those questions and more are beginning to be answered by modern science and here is what it has to say (Luyster, Strollo, Zee, & Walsh, 2012).

Why Do We Need Sleep?

There is a recently elucidated system in the brain called the glymphatic system. It effects waste removal process for the brain, clearing toxins and metabolic byproducts created by neurons. One of the byproducts that it removes are the amyloid beta plaques associated with Alzheimer’s disease.

The glymphatic system is always at work, but it has high energy requirements. Energy requirements for the glymphatic system are so high, in fact, that it can’t keep up with waste production during waking hours because the brain is using too much energy. When we sleep, the glymphatic system is finally able to get the energy it needs. The result is that cleaning activity increases 10-fold and neurons shrink by up to 60%. These two factors make it easier for waste to be removed from the brain (Xie et al., 2013).

How Much Sleep Is Enough?

Knowing why we need sleep doesn’t do a whole lot to inform us about how much sleep we need. The age-old recommendation is eight hours, but some people need more and some people need less. Additionally, the recommendation doesn’t take into account things like age, cognitive effort during the day, and other factors that may increase or decrease sleep requirements.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, there is no magic number of hours that are “enough” when it comes to sleep. Sleep needs vary dramatically across populations and the best way to determine how much sleep is “right” for you is to listen to your body. A good number to start with is eight hours, but if you wake up feeling tired, have trouble getting out of bed, or find that your mental acuity is not what it normally is, then you need more rest.

It is important to keep in mind, when judging how much sleep you need, that you may have a sleep debt that isn’t easily resolved. A few nights of adequate rest may not be enough to make up for months or years of sleep deprivation. Simply put, your sleep needs may vary from one day to the next, from one month to another, and from year to year(“How Much Sleep Do We Really Need?,” n.d.).

There is no evidence that our bodies will allow us to “oversleep,” but there are a number of ways to tell when we haven’t had enough. Common symptoms of acute sleep deprivation include irritability, difficulty concentrating, forgetfulness, and fatigue. Symptoms of chronic sleep deprivation can include weight gain, depression, irritability, difficulties with memory, and susceptibility to illness (especially colds and the flu).

How To Improve Sleep

To improve sleep, start with your schedule. Try to be consistent about going to bed and waking up, even on weekends. Never eat within three hours of bed time and try not to exercise prior to bed either. Put sleep on your “to-do” list and cross it off every night and avoiding sleeping during the day so that you are ready for bed at night.

Make sure the location where you sleep is soothing, devoid of electronics, and comfortable. Darkness and silence are important to sleep, but sunlight can be used to help you wake up, so leave your blinds or curtains open if you need to. Never use the bedroom for “sleep stealing activities” like television, computer work, or reading.

You can greatly improve both your quantity and quality of sleep by exercising.

Regular exercise makes it easier to fall asleep and to stay asleep.

Pin It Avoid sleep medications as much as possible because they tend to interfere with sleep patterns and make sleep less restful.

If you have trouble falling asleep, turn to natural herbs first. If those don’t work, consider Mantram, the practice or repeating certain syllables, words, or phrases over and over in your mind. This can help to counteract negative mental states, subdue restlessness, and improve relaxation (“Natural Cures for Insomnia – Andrew Weil, M.D.,” n.d.).

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Katherine Hurst
By Bridget Webber
Bridget Webber's background rests in mental health, counseling, hypnotherapy, NLP and art. She brings knowledge from her experiences into her writing and specializes in emotional wellness and the creation of, rather than search for, joy.

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