We’ve all been there: you finally get a free moment, and all you want to do is rest your eyes. But you also feel like sleeping will hinder your productivity, wasting your tiny sliver of precious time.
Between demanding jobs, upskilling, family duties, and a society that emphasizes the importance of always working, it’s no surprise that 1 in 3 adults1 is lacking in the sleep department.
Prioritizing sleep is good for your health and boosts your productivity by enhancing your brain function and learning abilities. This article will delve into sleep and brain health, breaking down why you should get adequate rest daily.
Understanding the Connection Between Sleep and Brain Health
One of the biggest reasons sleep is so good for you is the connection between sleep and brain health.
Sleep supports brain function by helping you form memories and enhancing your learning abilities.
Sleep and Brain Function: Memory and Learning
There are a couple of key ways that sleep and brain function work hand-in-hand to enhance memory and learning. Adequate sleep:
- Prepares you to learn new information
- Helps you process new information after you’ve learned it
- Enables you to forget unimportant details and make room for important ones
When you’re awake, you absorb a lot of valuable information. All of this new information is stored temporarily in your hippocampus. However, your hippocampus only has a limited storage ability. And when you go to sleep, the temporary memories stored there are transferred to your permanent memory.2
This helps with learning because clearing out that temporary storage bank prepares you to learn new things and helps you permanently store any new information that you’ve just learned. This process is called memory consolidation.
Forming memories is important, but there is some information that we don’t need to hold on to. When you sleep, your brain sorts through the information you’ve learned and helps you do away with the information you no longer need, clearing valuable space for more meaningful memories.
Sleep Brain Waves: Stages of Sleep
Your brain’s activity changes as you go through different sleep stages.3
The first three stages of sleep are non-REM, and the final stage is REM. REM stands for rapid eye movement. During REM Sleep, your eyes move back and forth behind your eyelids. This does not happen during non-REM sleep.
- Stage 1 is when you first drift off to sleep (lighter sleep). Your muscle tone (the tension in your muscle) is present. You are breathing at a regular rate. When this stage starts, your brain waves are active (or “awake”), and slightly slow down.
- Stage 2 is deeper sleep. Your heart rate and body temperature drop. Your brain wave activity slows more. Your brain starts having brief bursts of electrical activity called sleep spindles.
- Stage 3 is the deepest stage of non-REM sleep. Your body repairs and grows tissues, builds muscles and bones, and strengthens your immune system. Your brain waves continue to slow even more.
- The REM stage of sleep is when dreams usually occur. Brain waves change during REM sleep and pick back up to the speed at which they move when you are awake.
The Restorative Functions of Sleep for the Brain
Sleep is an incredibly restorative process for the brain and the body. Your brain recharges, your cells grow and repair, and your hormones are even influenced.
During Sleep, Your Brain Rests and Recharges
On top of the fact that your brain processes information while you sleep, it also goes through a detoxification process.4 Your brain flushes out certain toxins through a waste removal system while in deep sleep.
Cells Repair and Grow During Sleep
Cells throughout the body regenerate and repair themselves while you sleep,5 helping with wound healing and recovery. For this reason, getting extra sleep is essential for anyone recovering from an injury or surgical procedure.
Sleep and Brain Chemicals
Several brain chemicals and hormones are influenced by your sleep, including:
- Melatonin. Melatonin is the sleep hormone or sleep brain chemical. It helps to regulate your body’s internal clock (circadian rhythm).
- Growth hormone. Growth hormone helps build bones and muscles. It promotes growth in children and adolescents. The body releases growth hormones during sleep, so adequate sleep is essential for children.6 Growth hormone is also important for adults, aiding in healthy metabolism.
- Cortisol. Cortisol is a stress hormone. It is naturally released when your body detects danger to prepare your body to defend itself. When released, cortisol increases your heart rate and helps you respond to stressors. Levels naturally rise while you sleep,7 and studies have shown that inadequate sleep can cause inappropriate cortisol release during the day.
- Leptin and ghrelin. These two hormones help to regulate hunger levels. They can be thrown off by inadequate sleep8, leading to increased hunger while awake.
The Sleep Center of the Brain
Sleep isn’t exactly a simple process. Your sleep patterns are influenced by various factors, such as special mechanisms in the brain and your brain activity.
Understanding the Brain’s Sleep Mechanism
There are a couple of significant mechanisms that help your brain regulate sleep.
- The circadian rhythm is your body’s biological clock. It helps your body fluctuate between wakefulness and sleepiness while influencing metabolism, body temperature, and hormone release.
- Sleep-wake homeostasis monitors your body’s need for sleep. This mechanism helps remind your body to sleep after a certain amount of time and regulates how intense the urge to sleep is.9
Sleep and Brain Activity: Why is REM Sleep So Important?
All stages of sleep are essential, but REM sleep plays a unique role in helping with memory consolidation, emotional regulation, and brain health.
Your brain is highly active during REM sleep, and this is the stage in which you dream. Dreaming can help with regulating emotions and improving your psychological well-being.
The Dark Side: How Sleep Deprivation Affects the Brain
Now that you know all the reasons why sleep is incredibly beneficial for your health, you can probably start to see why losing sleep can harm your longevity and mental well-being.
Understanding how sleep deprivation affects the brain, including short-term and long-term consequences, can help you further understand the importance of prioritizing sleep.
Short-term Effects of Sleep Deprivation on Brain Function
Short-term sleep deprivation can cause cognitive impairment and reduced focus. Sleep deprivation (even for one night) can lead to:
- Poor focus
- An increased stress response
- Emotional distress
Sleep deprivation can also increase your risk of accidental injuries, such as a car accident or an accident on the job since your focus and attention span will decrease.
Long-term Consequences of Sleep Deprivation
How sleep deprivation affects the brain goes beyond just poor focus and memory. Poor sleep habits can increase your risk of developing chronic diseases like those listed below.
Studies have found that long-term sleep loss is associated with an increased risk of10:
- Cardiovascular disease
- Anxiety and mood disorders
- Alzheimer’s Disease11
Sleep-Deprived Brain vs. Normal Brain: Uncovering the Differences
There are several ways to compare a sleep-deprived brain vs. a normal brain. Some studies have examined brain scans to determine how the actual brain structures and activities are affected. Others have compared individual participants’ performance side-by-side, using one group that is adequately rested and one that is not. Let’s look at the following comparisons.
Brain Imaging Studies on Sleep-Deprived Individuals
One study12 found that the functional connectivity of the prefrontal brain region is negatively affected by sleep deprivation. This part of the brain regulates thoughts, actions, and emotions.
Cognitive and Behavioral Differences Between Sleep-Deprived and Well-Rested Brains
Many studies have examined the effects of sleep deprivation on the human brain. A sleep-deprived individual is more likely to have a hard time recalling memories and being more emotionally sensitive13. A well-rested person, on the other hand, can learn new things more efficiently and show more emotional resilience.
Insomnia Brain vs. Normal Brain: Bridging the Gap
Insomnia is an incredibly common condition marked by an inability to sleep properly. There are many different causes of insomnia and various types of insomnia as well.
Common causes of insomnia14 include:
- Shift work or overnight shifts
- Poor sleep habits and lifestyle choices
Insomnia can be categorized based on whether it is short-term or chronic15. It may also be classified as being either primary or comorbid.
Primary insomnia occurs on its own, with no other underlying conditions. Comorbid insomnia is caused by an underlying medical condition such as a psychiatric illness or sleep apnea.
Potential Treatment Approaches for Improving Sleep and Brain Health
Effective treatments for insomnia are essential for long-term health. Cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) is one of the most effective treatment methods.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I)
CBT-I helps you figure out what types of thoughts are interfering with your sleep so that you can change these thoughts.
Every treatment approach will vary from person to person, but a CBT-I therapist16 might recommend any of the following:
- Changing your sleep routine
- Making certain lifestyle choices
- Improving your sleep environment
- Learning relaxation techniques
At-Home Tips for Optimizing Sleep for Better Brain Health
Whether you seek professional help or not, you may need to take some steps on your own to improve your sleep quality.
Getting into a good sleep routine and practicing sleep hygiene can be incredibly effective in improving your nightly rest and benefiting your overall health.
Some lifestyle changes that will positively benefit your sleep include:
- Reduce caffeine and alcohol consumption.
- Eliminate screens and visible clocks from your bedroom.
- Keep the temperature of your bedroom cool at night.
- Go to bed and wake up around the same time each night.
- Practice relaxation techniques like breathwork and meditation.
Skipping out on sleep may give you more hours in a day, but it’s unlikely to enhance your productivity. Extensive studies have proven that sleep deprivation makes it harder to focus, learn, and handle stress.
During sleep, your brain rests, so prioritizing sleep is a surefire way to optimize your brain function and help you feel your best.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 1 in 3 adults don’t get enough sleep. CDC. Published January 1, 2016. https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2016/p0215-enough-sleep.html
- Walker MP. Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams. Scribner, An Imprint Of Simon & Schuster, Inc; 2017.
- Brain Basics: Understanding Sleep | National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. https://www.ninds.nih.gov/health-information/public-education/brain-basics/brain-basics-understanding-sleep
- MD ALK. Are toxins flushed out of the brain during sleep? Harvard Health. Published July 1, 2021. https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/are-toxins-flushed-out-of-the-brain-during-sleep#:~:text=The%20waste%20management%20system%20
- Tissue regeneration: Impact of sleep on stem cell regenerative capacity. Life Sciences. 2018;214:51-61. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.lfs.2018.10.057
- Can Lack of Sleep Stunt Your Growth? (for Teens) – Nemours KidsHealth. kidshealth.org. https://kidshealth.org/en/teens/sleep-growth.html#:~:text=But%20over%20the%20long%20term
- Hirotsu C, Tufik S, Andersen ML. Interactions between sleep, stress, and metabolism: From physiological to pathological conditions. Sleep Science. 2015;8(3):143-152. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.slsci.2015.09.002
- SCHMID SM, HALLSCHMID M, JAUCH-CHARA K, BORN J, SCHULTES B. A single night of sleep deprivation increases ghrelin levels and feelings of hunger in normal-weight healthy men. Journal of Sleep Research. 2008;17(3):331-334. doi:https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1365-2869.2008.00662.x
- Peever J, Fuller Patrick M. Neuroscience: A Distributed Neural Network Controls REM Sleep. Current Biology. 2016;26(1):R34-R35. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2015.11.011
- Medic G, Wille M, Hemels M. Short- and long-term Health Consequences of Sleep Disruption. Nature and Science of Sleep. 2017;9(9):151-161. doi:https://doi.org/10.2147/nss.s134864
- Bryant E. Lack of sleep in middle age may increase dementia risk. National Institutes of Health (NIH). Published April 27, 2021. https://www.nih.gov/news-events/nih-research-matters/lack-sleep-middle-age-may-increase-dementia-risk
- Verweij IM, Romeijn N, Smit DJ, Piantoni G, Van Someren EJ, van der Werf YD. Sleep deprivation leads to a loss of functional connectivity in frontal brain regions. BMC Neuroscience. 2014;15(1):88. doi:https://doi.org/10.1186/1471-2202-15-88
- Vandekerckhove M, Wang Y. Emotion, emotion regulation and sleep: An intimate relationship. AIMS Neuroscience. 2017;5(1):1-17. doi:https://doi.org/10.3934/Neuroscience.2018.1.1
- Insomnia: Causes, Risks & Treatments. Cleveland Clinic. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/12119-insomnia#symptoms-and-causes
- Types. stanfordhealthcare.org. https://stanfordhealthcare.org/medical-conditions/sleep/insomnia/types.html
- Mayo Clinic. Insomnia treatment: Cognitive behavioral therapy instead of sleeping pills. Mayo Clinic. Published September 28, 2016. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/insomnia/in-depth/insomnia-treatment/art-20046677