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5 Thoughts on What Happens to Your Brain When You Don’t Sleep Enough

Hayley Dawes
21 June 2023

There are a number of ways to keep your brain healthy, such as a healthy diet, movement, exercise, and stress reduction. But one of the big brain savers is all about what you do at night, and by that we mean sleep.

Sleep is truly amazing, refreshing, and restorative. If you’re not getting enough or just not doing it very well, the consequences can be more serious than you might think. An under-slept brain won’t be able to perform particularly well in everyday life.

Since the pandemic, good sleep has not always been easy to come by. However, cutting sleep corners is a health non-starter with big consequences, which is why it is imperative for us to get serious about our sleep before long-term problems start to occur.

Napping is nice, but it doesn’t help much

Unfortunately, we can’t power nap away all the consequences of poor nightly sleep. We really need those full and consistent cycles – and those don’t occur during a nap. In fact, people with insomnia should not nap or, if they feel they must, they should limit themselves to one 20-minute nap early in the day.

Here are some thoughts on why taking care of your brain with a good night’s sleep is essential to living a long and healthy life: 

  1. Your brain needs you to sleep

Don’t think of sleep as a luxury – it is an absolute essential act of daily health maintenance, to keep your brain sharp and youthful. Cheating yourself out of sleep denies your brain its nightly whole-body refresh and reset time it needs to forge pathways between nerve cells, helping you retain information you’ve learned during the day. Trillions of nerve cells literally rewire themselves to map out what you’ve learned, making new connections, and clearing out old or unused information routes (called synapses) to allow for more efficient brain function the next day. It’s how we find new solutions to old problems. 

The more frequently you go without good sleep, the more harm you’re causing your brain in the cognitive sense, too. More and more research suggests that inadequate sleep can lead to long-term cognitive decline, including dementia.

It’s worth noting that those complete cycles of sleep don’t just flush out our brains; they flush out our entire bodies. On both a physical and emotional level, not getting enough sleep will also likely leave you feeling worn out, anxious or depressed. The conclusion is your brain needs you to shut down, ideally on a regular and consistent schedule. This means for at least the necessary 7-8 hours a night on average that adults need.

We often hear that we are what we eat, but we must also keep in mind that we are how we sleep. So, follow the rules of good sleep hygiene. Make your room cool and dark. Keep to regular bedtimes and wake times. Stop scrolling through your phone as you prepare to drift off into unconsciousness. Respect the trillions of cells that make you function – and they’ll keep up the good work.

  1. Sleep allows your brain to wash out junk

When you sleep, your brain protects itself from toxic proteins, including the ones that form Alzheimer’s. It does this via its glymphatic system which flushes cerebrospinal fluid through the brain to remove proteins that accumulate between the cells, by-products of neurological processes during the day. This “overnight clean-up” keeps the brain clear and healthy, but this can only work when you’re asleep.

Research now links this build-up of cellular waste with the loss of brain function and an increased risk of developing neurological diseases, like dementia and Alzheimer’s. Dementia is nothing other than brain cells not being able to communicate with other brain cells in a normal and healthy way. What gets in the way of this communication is lack of sleep, for one.

  1. Being under-slept can be like having a drinking problem

Not getting sufficient good quality sleep also decreases your coordination and increases your risk for accidents and injury. Sleep deprivation’s effects on the brain can mirror some of the effects of drinking too much alcohol. According to the National Sleep Foundation, highly sleep-deprived workers are 70% more likely to be involved in work-related accidents.

  1. A well-rested brain will keep you healthy all around

In addition to keeping your brain fog-free, regular, sound sleep builds up greater mental and emotional resilience, with improved mood and ability to focus. You’ll look and feel better, and odds are, you’ll even live longer.

Here are some of the ways that good, restorative sleep and well-rested brains work their health magic:

  • A well-rested brain creates more brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a special protein that is highly beneficial when it comes to brain health. BDNF repairs brain cells and increases the growth of new brain cells; it improves learning and memory, it protects against Alzheimer’s disease, it works as a natural antidepressant, helping to reverse chronic anxiety and depression.
  • A sleep-supported brain ensures an energised body. When the power-plants in your brain cells, the mitochondria, are able to power down at night, they protect themselves from the damage that could interfere with their energy-production duties that we depend on to keep us moving during the day.
  • A brain that receives sound sleep maintains the body’s healthy hormonal balance. When we get a good night’s sleep, our stress hormones drop which signals the pituitary gland to produce growth hormone which repairs and restores skin, muscle, and bone. When our cortisol levels stay high at night, we toss and turn and get a bad night’s sleep, and the collagen in our skin can break down.
  • When we’re in synch with our circadian rhythms and sleeping well, our brains produce healthy amounts of melatonin, the “sleep hormone”.
  1. Be good to your brain

Protecting your brain and tending to its health is essential to a long and healthy lifespan. Ignore it and your brain health will suffer in many ways. To get started, try Dreem Distillery’s key tips to start sleeping better tonight. You’ve only got one brain, so take care of it and use it well.