There are few pleasures in life that equal the pure satisfaction of a good, solid snooze. We think of sleep as the only time our multitasking, ever whirling, electronic addicted brains get to shut down for a bit and rest. But what really happens to us when we close our eyes?
According to new science, the quiet respite that we conceive of as powering down during sleep, is in fact far from what is really going on in our brain. A recent study in Time Magazine explains that when the lights go off our brain begins working just as hard as ever but in a different way.
…a legion of neurons springs into action, and like any well-trained platoon, the cells work in perfect synchrony, pulsing with electrical signals that wash over the brain with a soothing, hypnotic flow. Meanwhile, data processors sort through the reams of information that flooded the brain all day at a pace too overwhelming to handle in real time. The brain also runs checks on itself to ensure that the exquisite balance of hormones, enzymes and proteins isn’t too far off-kilter. And all the while, cleaners follow in close pursuit to sweep out the toxic detritus that the brain doesn’t need and which can cause all kinds of problems if it builds up.”
It’s hard to fathom that as we are snoring away, drooling on our pillows, this complicated matrix of action is taking place inside our heads but there you have it. It is our brain on sleep, the importance of which cannot be ignored, although it has been for far too long with a whopping 70 million of us not getting enough sleep. Scientists and sleep experts are all in agreement that our overall lack of real rest has become a huge problem. So much so in fact that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers insufficient sleep to be a public-health epidemic, leading to such issues as weight gain, type 2 diabetes, depression and anxiety. But that’s not all, more sleep could also lessen our chances of developing cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.
Just as our body has physical limits, so does our mind, which needs sleep to recharge. It’s easy to feel like we can sleep less without any real consequences. However, recent data proves differently. Workers that don’t sleep well are more likely to call in sick and students without enough rest have more car crashes and don’t do as well in school.
Research has shown that pushing past our limits when it comes to sleep can cause total collapse. One such study conducted by Dr. Sigrid Veasey, a leading sleep researcher and a professor of medicine at Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, used mice to study this effect. As explained in Time magazine,
…neurons that fire constantly to keep the brain alert spew out toxic free radicals as a by-product of making energy. During sleep, they produce antioxidants that mop up these potential poisons. But even after short periods of sleep loss, “the cells are working hard but cannot make enough antioxidants, so they progressively build up free radicals and some of the neurons die off.” Once those brain cells are gone, they’re gone for good.”
After a couple of weeks, the mice in the experiment were much more groggy when they were supposed to be active and awake. They also had a harder time resting during their regular sleep periods. This phenomenon naturally occurs as we age but what the research suggests is that by denying ourselves enough sleep is essentially prematurely aging our brains.
You can think of it this way. Our active brains work very hard collecting information and using up energy. At the end of the day when it’s time to sleep, our brain goes through the process of ridding itself of the built up waist or taking out the trash, so to speak.
So how does it work? Dr. Maiken Nedergaard, the co-director of the Center for Translational Neuromedicine at the University of Rochester wondered this very thing. Through her research of a group of previously ignored cells called glials, Nedergaard found that when the body falls asleep such cells slow the brain’s electrical activity to 1/3 of it’s peak frequency. As we drift the haphazard firing of nerves that occurs when we are awake becomes more synchronized, lulling the nerves into a state of calm so that by the time we are in REM sleep the firing is almost nonexistent.
The Times article explains that,
At the same time, the sleeping brain’s cells shrink, making more room for the brain and spinal cord’s fluid to slosh back and forth between them.”
When we don’t get enough sleep, this process (which is a lot like a dishwasher slushing off the dirt and clearing it away) can’t take place and we are therefore unable to clear all the garbage from our brain. This also helps to explain why Alzheimer’s patients are so often older, as it is a disease caused by the build-up of amyloid protein that isn’t cleared quickly enough.
So what, pray tell, can be done about all of this? It’s actually quite simple. We have got to start to prioritizing our sleep! As a society we pride ourselves on our stamina. Our most famous city, NYC, is touted as the city that never sleeps. We guzzle energy drinks to stay awake and frequent 24 hour gyms and stores. As with so many health issues, education is key! Spread the word, sleeping isn’t lazy it’s essential! Pass it along, share this article and together we can begin to affect a change in attitude and possibly even policy.
For example, Spain, still recognizes the siesta, a time when the majority of shops close down in the heat of the day and workers are allowed a chance to go home and rest. Can you imagine saying adios to your boss for a couple of hours while you were allowed to catch some shut eye!? It can’t be out of the realm of possibility if we all were to sound the sleeping trumpet.
A recent article in the New York Times reported on a small study of 40 people aged 18 to 50, who after three nights of normal sleep, were given a computer based test to evaluate their tolerance. They were then randomly assigned to either take an hour nap or watch a nature video.
Before the nap period, everyone spent about the same amount of time on the unsolvable task, but afterward nappers, who all reported having slept at least part of the time, spent significantly more time working at it than they had before their nap, while non-nappers gave up sooner. Nappers also rated their behavior as less impulsive than non-nappers.”
The study appears in Personality and Individual Differences and demonstrates, once again the power of sleep even in small doses.
Naps May Improve Our Frustration Tolerance via NYTimes
The Power of Sleep via Time
Napping to modulate frustration and impulsivity: A pilot study via Science Direct
Teens and sleep via Sleep foundation
Better Sleep May be Important for Alzheimer’s Risk