Your Brain & Sleep (6 min)

Your Brain & Sleep

Your brain needs sleep, too! Can you think of a time you’ve awakened after a poor night’s sleep, or after a long trip, and simply been too cotton-headed to think? It turns out that sleep can have a lot of impact on the brain. But how exactly is the brain affected by sleep?

A study on mice at the University of Rochester found that the flow of cerebrospinal fluid (found in the brain and spinal cord) increased drastically during sleep and was able to wash away waste proteins that built up between brain cells during the day. This cleaning or lack thereof, could help explain the connection between some sleep disorders and Alzheimer’s.

Sleep is also known to play a role in making memories of the day “stick,” a process known as memory consolidation.

You can’t underestimate the importance of sleep for brain health, or the importance of brain health for work. The connection might be difficult to make, since most of us don’t (or at least aren’t supposed to) sleep at work, but Alice Walton, writing for Forbes Magazine, explains:

The RAND research group just came out with a 100-page analysis of how sleep affects us and what sleep deprivation can do to us — and to the economy. They estimate that between lost work and poor performance at work from lack of sleep, the U.S. alone loses $411 billion each year. Though businesses and policy makers may be interested in the financial repercussions of sleep deprivation, these repercussions stem from people being unwell because of it, which underlines the very real consequences of sleep deprivation.

One way to get better and more consistent sleep is to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. One usually encourages the other — going to sleep at a regular time means more regular hours, and your body starts to adjust your wake-up time based on how much sleep you can get. Similarly, enforcing a regular wake-up time will adjust your cycle so that you start to become tired around the same time each night, after you make up your sleep deficit, of course!

The idea of a sleep deficit or sleep “debt” is acknowledged by the scientific community. Many people try to correct their sleep deficit by getting extra sleep on weekends, and if you’re only off by a few hours, this may work. But bigger sleep deficits will take longer to correct. Per Scientific American, a 2005 survey found that “on average, Americans sleep 6.9 hours per night—6.8 hours during the week and 7.4 hours on the weekends. Experts generally recommend eight hours of sleep per night, although some people may require only six hours of sleep while others need ten. That means on average, we’re losing one hour of sleep each night — more than two full weeks of slumber every year.”

If working to get back on track and out of your deficit, the chronically deprived may take a few weeks to get back into a regular pattern and bank closer to 10 hours/night for a while, while catching up. Feeling discouraged? According to the National Sleep Foundation, “When it comes to paying down sleep debt, slow and steady is the way to go… Stick to a regular sleep and wake schedule, avoid caffeine and alcohol, exercise daily, and relax before bed with a hot bath or a good book instead of electronics (which can disrupt sleep).”

Feel like a nap?