This Is Your Brain On Not Enough Sleep

August 08, 2021

sleep deprived man working on his computer

Nearly everyone has heard the public service announcement, “This is your brain on drugs!” warning people about the dangers of using illicit substances. But what most people don’t understand is that they too are very likely to have driven or operated dangerous machinery while impaired, even if they have never used an illegal substance or would never dream of driving a vehicle after drinking alcohol.

This is because a lack of sleep is extremely commonplace in our modern society and has a huge negative effect on how your brain performs. In fact, a lack of sleep affects you in exactly the same way as if you were drunk. In one study, the test performance of participants who had gone 17 to 19 hours without sleep was the same or worse as if they had a blood alcohol of 0.05%. In fact, the response speeds of the participants who had gone without sleep for this long was 50% slower than if they had consumed enough alcohol to get their blood level to 0.05%!

If you are sleep deprived, not only will you have trouble paying attention and concentrating on the task at hand, but you will also not be able to problem solve well, your memory, judgment, emotional processing are impaired, and even your creativity will be negatively impacted. If you continue not getting enough sleep, you may be putting yourself at increased risk for permanent cognitive decline. In other words, a chronic lack of sleep is associated with the development of various forms of dementia, including Alzheimer’s.

One of the functions of sleep seems to be what scientists refer to as memory consolidation, meaning that your brain creates new pathways for the information you have recently learned. If you don’t get enough sleep, your brain does not have the time it needs to create these new pathways and you are likely to find yourself having trouble remembering.

But like so many things, “more” is not always better. Research has shown that too much sleep can also lead to cognitive impairment. So how much sleep do you need for optimal brain health? This depends on your age, as young adults (ages 18 to 25) need 7 to 9 hours of sleep a night, adults (26 to 64) also need 7 to 9 hours a night and older adult (65 and over) need slightly less, 7 to 8 hours a night. Keep in mind that these numbers are averages, and individuals can vary considerably in the number of hours of sleep they need each night.

Also, you go through “cycles” as you sleep each night, consisting of four stages: light non-REM (rapid eye movement) sleep are the first two stages, followed by a period of deep, slow brainwave non-REM sleep and then a period of REM sleep, in which dreaming occurs. These stages all serve various functions, including the consolidation of memories and the processing of emotions.

Fortunately, there are several easy things you can do to help you sleep better. Here are three of the most practical, powerful and effective sleep tips we know:

One - Spend 35 to 40 minutes each morning getting direct exposure to natural sunlight. Don’t wear sunglasses or a visor. Sunlight which is filtered through a window may not be as effective. Wear sunscreen if you are concerned but morning sun is generally much less intense than later in the day. If you can’t get out, consider getting a sun lamp, which mimics the light wavelengths you need for good health.

Two - Getting regular exercise is one of the best things you can do to help you sleep better, in addition to being great for your overall health. Just be sure not to exercise too close to bedtime, as this can cause you to have trouble falling asleep. In general, you should avoid really vigorous exercise for at least one full hour before you go to bed. If you exercise outdoors, you’ll also be able to get in your daily quota of natural sunlight.

Three - Having caffeine too close to bedtime can disrupt your sleep. Have a cutoff time for coffee, tea or other caffeinated beverages which ideally is four to six hours before your bedtime. If you are particularly sensitive to the effects of caffeine, then make your cutoff time even earlier, at noon.

If you still aren't getting the sleep you need after making these simple changes consider a sleep tracker.  There are various sleep trackers on the market today which can help to estimate the time you are spending in each stage, but to get an entirely accurate picture of your sleep, you would need to undergo a formal sleep study in a sleep center. A sleep study is used to diagnose a sleep disorder such as sleep apnea, in which people who have this can stop breathing many, many times during the night, causing their blood oxygen levels to fall to potentially dangerous levels. Sleep studies are also used to diagnose other sleep disorders such as restless legs syndrome (RLS), narcolepsy, periodic limb movement disorder, and insomnia.

If you have excessive daytime sleepiness, chronic problems falling or staying asleep, or your bed partner complains that you snore (a sign of possible sleep apnea) consult your physician to see if a sleep study is in order. The health of your brain may depend on it!

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