How little sleep affects your brain

A woman sleeping
A woman sleeping
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When human beings are sleep deprived, they can exhibit a number of symptoms. Among them are: impaired attention and alertness, decreased reasoning and problem solving, decreased s*x drive, depression, wrinkles, forgetfulness, overeating, and impaired judgment.

A new study has revealed yet another negative impact…when you don’t get enough quality sleep your brain may start eating itself…seriously.

Suffering from chronic sleep deprivation may also increase your risk of fibromyalgia, heart attack, heart failure, heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, stroke, Alzheimer’s, and even death from all causes.

But, let’s get back to this brain-eating discovery, shall we? Recent studies reveal that 40 percent of all Americans are getting five hours of sleep a night or less. Much less than the recommended seven to eight hours.

New research discovers a shocking truth

When we sleep, we replenish energy levels, but our body actually does something else that is wildly important. Our brains change states when we sleep in order to release toxic byproducts of the neural activity of the day – it is a cleaning out process that is highly valuable.

Strangely enough, researchers have now discovered that this clearing out process also happens in brains that are chronically sleep deprived – except it is much more intense. Poor sleep causes the brain to clear out many neurons and synaptic connections that may not be recoverable with additional rest.

Michele Bellesi, a neuroscientist from Marche Polytechnic University in Italy, led the team of researchers who uncovered the striking similarities between the brains of well rested and sleepless mice.

The neurons in the brain are being constantly refreshed

All cells in the human body, including the brain are continually being refreshed by two different types of support cells that are often referred to as the glue of the nervous system.

Microglial cells clean out worn out cells in a process called phagocytosis – which means “to devour” in Greek. Astrocytes go to work pruning away unneeded connections in the brain to refresh and reshape its wiring – kind of like closing tabs on a computer.

This complex and necessary process happens when we sleep, but it also happens when we start to become sleep deprived. Essentially what is a good thing becomes a very bad thing as the brain begins to harm itself by switching the clearing out process into overdrive.

It’s like taking the garbage out…and then throwing away good stuff

What the researchers discovered was that a chronically sleep-deprived brain throws out the garbage plus lots of extra stuff that is necessary. It would be like you throwing out your regular trash and then tossing your perfectly good couch, bicycles, fridge etc.

“We show for the first time that portions of synapses are literally eaten by astrocytes because of sleep loss.”- Michele Bellesi

Researchers found that the astrocytes in sleep-deprived mice had increased activity and began to actually eat parts of synapses in a similar way as microglial cells eat waste – a process called astrocytic phagocytosis.

In the brains of sleep-deprived mice, astrocytes were active across 8.4 percent of the synapses and in the chronically sleep deprived mice, there was 13.4 percent astrocyte activity. The researchers were not as concerned about the astrocyte activity in the sleep-deprived mice as they were with the chronically sleep deprived mice because unchecked microglial activity has been linked to brain conditions including Alzheimer’s and other forms of neurodegeneration.

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“We find that astrocytic phagocytosis, mainly of presynaptic elements in large synapses, occurs after both acute and chronic sleep loss, but not after spontaneous wake, suggesting that it may promote the housekeeping and recycling of worn components of heavily used, strong synapses. By contrast, only chronic sleep loss activates microglia cells and promotes their phagocytic activity … suggesting that extended sleep disruption may prime microglia and perhaps predispose the brain to other forms of insult.”

What this means for you if you regularly suffer from poor sleep

Sleep is instrumental to good health, and suffering from chronic insomnia may cause your brain to turn on itself and increase your risk of developing Alzheimer’s. More research is needed and some questions remain such as whether or not catching up on sleep can reverse the damage.

However, suffice it to say, with an alarming increase in Alzheimer’s at 50% since 1999 and the reality that most people just don’t get enough sleep, we should not take the results of this study lightly.

What you can do if you suffer from insomnia

Can’t sleep? Here are some tips and tricks for a more restful night.

  • Exercise: At least half an hour of moderate exercise in the afternoon is a great way to put your body and mind in an optimal state for sleep readiness later in the night.
  • Herbal tonics: Herbal sleep elixirs include kava kava root and chamomile, which, when taken before bed, can significantly boost your ability to fall asleep faster and experience a sounder sleep.
  • Meditation: One of the best ways to improve your overall sleep cycle; however, is meditation, especially before bed. Even if practiced for only five or 10 minutes, regular meditation can help you shed the anxieties of the day, so your mind is not bogged down with sleep-disturbing thoughts. Rubbing a little bit of lavender or ylang ylang essential oil on your pressure points before meditating can elevate your sessions to an even higher level of serenity.
  • Put down electronics: Put down all electronics at least an hour before bedtime and be sure to stay off of your phone if you wake up in the middle of the night.
  • Turn the temperature down: Sleeping in a cool and dark room can also help you fall asleep quicker and stay asleep longer.
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