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How a Lack of Sleep Affects Your Brain

We’ve all been in varying forms of this position: you’re horizontal, swathed in cozy blankets, listening to the sound of your alarm drown out the silence; so tired that it takes every ounce of will to heave yourself out of bed to begin your day. You succeed in brushing your teeth, coffee perks you up slightly, but the grogginess permeates every interaction and decision until you finally clamber back into bed to recharge your empty batteries.


While a restless night every so often can be a mere annoyance, countless Americans are suffering from a constant lack of sleep – the CDC estimates that 1 out of every 3 Americans don’t get enough sleep every night. This can lead to lasting impacts on your body like heart problems, premature aging, and obesity. But to add salt to the wound, a lack of sleep makes a dent in your cognitive functions. A sleepy brain conjures up forgetfulness, incoherence, memory loss, weak motor skills, and many other neurological impacts, and until recently, it wasn’t entirely understood why. Now, we know exactly what a lack of sleep is doing to our brains and the implications of wide-eyed nights spent tossing and turning.


What Exactly is Happening to My Brain With a Lack of Sleep?


If you’ve ever felt sluggish in the morning, that foggy feeling is originating from your brain. For a long time, researchers had theories as to why we perform at a turtle’s pace when we’re tired, but now they’ve finally got data to back up insights.


For commands to travel efficiently through neurological pathways, a certain sleep quota needs to be fulfilled. “You’re putting energy in the bank when you go to sleep,” says Barry Krakow, MD, medical director of Maimonides Sleep Arts and Sciences in Albuquerque, N.M., and author of Sound Sleep, Sound Mind: 7 Keys to Sleeping Through the Night. “On a cellular level, the body is literally repairing and restoring itself. Without it, you can’t do what you want -- physically or mentally.” While everyone’s biological sleep quota ranges slightly, if there is a notable lack of sleep, brain cells are not able to communicate with one another effectively. It’s a bit like static through a telephone conversation. A clear connection has you singing crisp tales to your listener, while a bad line makes for breaks in your call, making instructions or stories difficult to decipher.


In a UCLA-led study, mental lapses were found to be the cause of sleep deprivation. Yuval Nir, lead author and sleep researcher at Tel Aviv University in Israel, said in a statement "We were fascinated to observe how sleep deprivation dampened brain cell activity. Unlike the usual rapid reaction, the neurons responded slowly, fired more weakly and their transmissions dragged on longer than usual."


Even more gripping is earlier this year, an Italian study came to find that sleep deprivation may actually cause certain brain cells – star-shaped cells called astrocytes, whose job is to clean out worn cells – to eat part of your brain’s synapses. In a sleep-deprived brain, parts of the brain look more worn-out, propelling astrocytes to kick into brain-cleaning overdrive.


What Are Cognitive Effects of a Lack of Sleep?


So what exactly are the implications of a sleepy brain? And if you’re constantly getting a lack of sleep, what are the long-term effects?


When your brain isn’t firing at top speed, soggy neural parthways can translate into bigtime mental lapses that have a significant effect on memory and the way you see things, or your visual perception. Dr. Itzhak Fried, UCLA neurosurgery professor and senior sleep study author, said that a lack of sleep “paves the way for cognitive lapses in how we perceive and react to the world around us.” Their findings also say that a lack of sleep can greatly interfere with the ability of the brain’s neurons to decrypt information that translates visual input into conscious thought. In the case of driving, a tired driver may take longer to realize that a pedestrian has stepped in front of the driver’s car. "The very act of seeing the pedestrian slows down in the driver's overtired brain," Nir said. When you’re exhausted, parts of your brain may actually mirror what it would look like when you are asleep, while other areas are functioning correctly. It’s as if certain parts are switched off to save energy for areas we may be using more.


Long-term neurological effects can include impaired memory, greater risks for depression, sleep apnea, narcolepsy, and consistent lack of sleep can translate to higher risk factors for Alzheimer Disease, stroke, and much more.


Take a Snooze


Always remember that ample sleep is your best friend! We (should) spend 1/3 of our lives recharging our batteries, and doing so enables us to live full, long, healthy and happy lives. Always make sleep a priority—the rest of your life will sing your praises.


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