Do You Know How Sleep Affects Your Brain?
We spend roughly a third of our lifetime sleeping – whether it’s a good eight hours, or maybe five, or even twelve hours of sleep, we’ve all had the pleasure of having a ‘good night’s sleep’. And yet, very few people constantly wonder about why we sleep. This is one of the unanswered questions in neuroscience, and maybe other related fields: what is its biological function? Why do we dream? What are the benefits? The scientific community continues to debate many of these areas but there are a couple of commonly suggested theories to explain why we sleep.
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Theory 1 - We sleep to clear waste accumulated during the day.
Our brain has a circadian rhythm, which is our internal clock for determining day and night. The theory suggests that even if you were placed in a cave, with no source of light, your body could still tell you roughly what time it was. To cover this, the body shifts its temperature, heart rate, oxygen consumption, and others factors – and this internal cycle roughly lasts 24 hours, similar to our concept of a 24-hour day. This can be thought of as ‘the baseline’ for us: however, during the day, we encounter many external influences that will alter or disrupt this balance – the theory goes that sleep is for our restoration, on a biological basis (rather than a psychological one). When asleep, the body has a lower metabolism, allowing processes to remove waste products. Some of these waste products are known as reactive oxygen species, which accumulate with a high metabolism. Other pieces of evidence include the need to restore glycogen levels, as well as neurotransmitter stores.
Theory 2 – We sleep to solidify our memories
Evolutionarily speaking, suppose you learned a task on day one: throwing a spear.
The action of throwing a spear is engrained by a series of neural networks in the brain; this includes the muscles involved, the effective reactions to this, and so on. The act of sleeping, as the theory goes, is that actions during the day, that are deemed important, are thought of as necessary by the brain. Therefore, when we sleep, the connections that make up ‘throwing a spear’ are strengthened, so that the next time you throw a spear, your skill has improved.
Compare this with someone who has not slept after throwing a spear, and you can imagine the perceived difference. Of course, experimental studies back up such analogies, showing participants’ abilities to learn are diminished after a poor night’s sleep.
We know that sleep is of paramount importance but what happens if we don’t get enough of it?
Perhaps there is a tendency to look at sleep in a positive manner: that, with it, it aids our bodies in a certain way. However, quality of sleep has been linked with a number of neurodegenerative diseases. For example, consider Alzheimer’s disease. Often a symptom of those with Alzheimer’s is an increased disruption to sleep, compared to the healthy elderly. Additionally, a clinical marker for this is the presence of amyloid deposits. It is worth noting that we are yet to find clarity on whether a lack of sleep itself is a cause of such an illness, or whether there is simply a correlation between the two.
A study found a worsening sleep quality was closely associated with amyloid deposition. At one point, the study showed that when sleep was disrupted, participants amyloid levels increased by about 10 percent. Numerous studies link lack of sleep to depression – its relationship is not fully understood, but there is a wealth of evidence to suggest that the two are somehow intertwined.
Our reasoning for sleep remains unanswered, though something we can determine is that sleep deprivation can have a detrimental effect on our wellbeing, both physical and mental. With this in mind, do we all need to start re-thinking how much we prioritize sleep in today’s world?
How to get a good night’s sleep
- Cut The Caffeine It is worth noting that response to caffeine varies between each individual.
- Avoid Blue Light – Smartphones and computers are the main culprits here. Try to turn the TV off, at least two hours before you go to bed. If you must go on your smartphone, try an app which blocks blue light, such as F.lux or Blue Light Filter.
- Reduce Long Naps – Whilst studies have shown that short naps can be beneficial, anything longer than 30 minutes can negatively affect your sleep quality.
- Limit Your Alcohol Intake – Just a couple of drinks can reduce your sleep quality. Much like the caffeine, where possible make sure you finish consumption well before you plan to go to bed.
- Consitency Is Key – Going to sleep at different times each day can negatively affect your melatonin levels (ie. Your brain’s signal to sleep). Even at weekends, try to rise and go to bed at consistent times.
- Try a sleep supplement – Neubria Drift is an evidence-based supplement, containing with hops, chamomile and tryptophan to support restful sleep and relaxation.
- Create a Suitable Environment – Studies have shown that increased light, street noise and even temperature can have significant effects on sleep quality. Minimise distractions and aim for between 16 ºC and 21ºC.
- Relaxation – Try to relax before bedtime. Taking a hot bath or shower, reading a book and practising meditation are all recommended
- Exercise regularly – In addition to its numerous other benefits, Regular exercise is one of the best ways to improve your sleep quality, having been shown to reduce the time it takes to fall asleep and increase total sleep time.
The nature of sleep is still very much up for debate. Whether you’re reading this at a reasonable hour or at 2am, we’re sure it gives you plenty of food for thought the next time you plan an ‘all-nighter’.
The hope is that, with the rise of technology, such as neuroimaging, we can see the complex chemical processes underlying this phenomenon, and shed a little more light on this fascinating, but not yet fully-understood topic.
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- Budson, A.E. & Kowall, N.W. 2011 (eds). The Handbook of Alzheimer's Disease & Other Dementias. Blackwell Publishing
- Ju, Y.E.S. McLeland, J.S. Toedebusch, C.D. Xiong, C. Fagan, A.M. Duntley, S.P. Morris, J.C. & Holtzman, D.M. 2013. Sleep quality & pre-clinical Alzheimer disease. JAMA neurology, 70(5), pp.587-593.
- Mueller A.D. Meerlo P. McGinty D. Mistlberger R.E. 2013. Sleep & Adult Neurogenesis: Implication for Cognition & Mood. In: Meerlo P. Benca R. Abel T. (eds) Sleep, Neuronal Plasticity & Brain Function. Current Topics in Behavioral Neurosciences, vol 25. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg
- Meerlo P. Havekes R. Steiger A. 2015. Chronically Restricted Sleep or Disrupted Sleep as a Causal Factor in Developing Depression. In: Meerlo P. Benca R. Abel T. (eds) Sleep, Neuronal Plasticity & Brain Function. Current Topics in Behavioral Neurosciences, vol 25. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg
- Roth, H.L, 2012. Dementia & Sleep, In Neurologic Clinics, 30 (4), pp.1213-1248