Sleep often takes a backseat to other priorities, whether that’s work commitments, social engagements, or just checking tasks off your to-do list. But even though many of us tend to neglect our sleep hygiene from time to time, the fact is that we need sufficient rest for optimal brain health.
It might be easy to assume that your brain is in a blissful state of unconsciousness when you’re asleep, but that’s far from the truth. While you’re sleeping, your brain continues to work overtime to ensure that you’re able to retain memories, learn essential information, and make informed decisions.
However, even one night of inadequate sleep can adversely impact your brain health. If that sounds extreme, think back to the last time you pulled an all-nighter or only slept four hours. In addition to hitting a midday slump that’s accompanied by fatigue, most people have trouble concentrating and feel disoriented. To understand why this happens, let’s learn why sleep is critical to brain health and the role it plays.
Why Is Sleep So Important?
Though it’s common knowledge that sleep is essential for overall well-being, there aren’t concrete answers to explain why we need it. But researchers have proposed one compelling theory which connects sleep and brain health. This recent theory is known as the brain plasticity theory.
In simple terms, brain plasticity refers to the brain’s ability to change and adapt throughout your life. According to the theory, several findings have linked sleep to the brain’s ability to change its shape and structure. The most significant connection can be observed among infants, who need at least 14 to 17 hours of sleep daily for optimal brain development.
The theory states that the connection between sleep and brain plasticity has also been observed among adults, particularly when they’re sleep-deprived. One study published in an online issue of Neurology revealed that lack of sleep could shrink the size of your brain, which happens because of your brain’s ability to adapt to new situations.
What Happens to Your Brain During Sleep?
We’ve established that the brain remains active while you’re sleeping, but what exactly happens during that time?
Every night, you go through five stages of sleep. Stages 1 through 4 are a part of NREM sleep, while the final and most active stage is the REM sleep. Let’s take a look at the activities your brain performs during each of these stages.
Just as you settle into bed and start to nod off, you enter stage 1, the lightest stage of sleep and often referred to as wakefulness.
During this time, your brain sends signals to relax your muscles and close your eyes. But even though your body is powering down, your brain can still process some information, such as sound and light. This is also the reason why you’re more likely to jolt awake during this stage if you hear someone slam a door or call your name.
At this point of your sleep stage, your brain waves also slow down, except for occasional bursts of activity known as sleep spindles. Sleep spindles are believed to be responsible for essential brain health functions, including memory consolidation and cortical development. During this stage, your eyes stop moving, and your heart rate and temperature drop.
Stages 3 & 4
These are the deepest stages of sleep and the toughest to awaken from. Getting sufficient deep sleep is essential for flushing out toxins from the brain. These stages are also responsible for strengthening your immune system and cell regeneration because your brain sends growth hormones to your body so that it can begin to repair itself.
The final stage of sleep is REM. When you enter this stage, your brain activity increases, and your brain is almost as active as it is when you’re awake. This is why you experience vivid dreams and nightmares during REM sleep. It's important for you to learn why is REM sleep important for your health.
Your brain also performs another essential function. It sends a message to your nervous system to relax your body and muscles so that you don’t act out your dreams.
Why is Sleep Essential for Brain Health?
Sleep is necessary for many brain functions, so much so that stress and sleep deprivation effects on the brain have been linked to several health problems, including Alzheimer’s, memory loss, and a decline in cognitive function. Here’s what getting sufficient sleep does for your brain health.
Improves brain performance
Even though pulling an all-nighter might seem like the most efficient way to tackle your tasks, the reality is that most of us won’t be able to function at an optimal level after staying up for that long. In fact, even staying up later by one or two hours is all it takes to wreck your sleep schedule, which is why it’s essential to take care of your brain health by getting the rest you need.
Though you might not be aware of it, your brain utilizes the time when you’re asleep to perform critical functions. Getting adequate sleep is the best way to ensure that you’re able to process new information and respond to problems critically. When you’re running on little to no sleep, you risk experiencing brain fog, which will only slow you down from achieving everything you need to get done.
No detox juice can come close to being a replacement for a good night’s sleep. Researchers have found that while you’re sleeping, your brain flushes out harmful toxins that may reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases.
The detoxification happens during slow-wave sleep, also known as the third stage of sleep. Slow waves, the electrical signals, actually appear right before a wave of cerebrospinal fluid washes into the brain. According to a study done on mice, this fluid is responsible for eliminating waste proteins that build up between brain cells when you’re awake. These waste proteins are toxic to the brain cells, which is why prolonged sleep deprivation is so harmful to brain health and overall well-being.
In an interview with NPR, Dr. Maiken Nedergaard, one of the authors of the study, explained why the brain may not be able to flush out toxins during the day or when you’re awake. “It’s probably not possible for the brain to clean itself and at the same time be aware of the surroundings and talk and move and so on,” she said.
Research has shown that sleep is essential for the creation and consolidation of long-term memories. To remember anything, your brain needs to be able to convert short-term memories into long-term ones. Any memory that you form is unstable until your brain consolidates it, which happens during sleep.
When you sleep, your brain processes the memories you formed during the day. It sorts through various information to determine what’s essential and what isn’t so that there’s enough space in your brain to keep learning new information. The most crucial fact is that all five sleep stages are needed for memory consolidation and brain health.
How to Improve Sleep Hygiene for Brain Health
The amount of sleep you need for better brain health varies based on several factors, such as age, your environment, and underlying medical conditions. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that adults should get at least 7 to 9 hours of sleep every night.
Suppose you’re not used to getting that much sleep. In that case, the best way to start is by practicing healthier sleep hygiene habits, including establishing a consistent bedtime, limiting caffeine and alcohol intake, avoiding screens at least 2 hours before bed, and taking time to unwind in the evening.
Along with these habits, the bed you’re sleeping on can have a significant impact on the overall quality of your sleep, so be sure to invest in the most comfortable mattress. With so many different mattress options available, it can be difficult to make a choice, but memory foam and a hybrid mattress are designed to provide optimal support and comfort.
Are you having sufficient rest for your optimal brain health? Share your thoughts in the comments.
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Disclaimer. We love sleep and we want you to get the best sleep possible. But we do not provide medical advice. This blog is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical info, diagnosis, or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on our blog.