How does lack of sleep effects your brain in short term? Likewise, what happens to our brains when we don’t get adequate sleep for a prolonged period?
Everybody knows that sleep is essential for our bodies and brains to function at their best. Otherwise, why would we be spending one third of our lives doing it? Chronic sleep deprivation puts us at a higher risk of various disorders and long term health conditions such as high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes and mental health problems such as anxiety and depression, to name just a few.
It has also been amply demonstrated that the lack of sleep has a negative affect on our cognitive performance. At the cognitive level, the lack of sleep impairs our ability to focus, make judgements, consolidate information and learn new things. In the words of Dr Michael Breus, The Sleep Doctor, “It’s difficult to identify a cognitive skill that isn’t affected by sleep, and compromised by sleep deprivation.”
Yet, while the effect of sleep and the lack of it on our cognitive performance is very well documented, much less is still known about how exactly sleep affects the brain on the cellular level.
However, as brain science rapidly advances, more and more studies appear that begin to fill that gap. Here are four of the most prominent studies of recent years and their findings that looked closely at our sleep deprived brains.
Sleep Allows Your Brain Cells To Repair Themselves
A study published earlier this year in Nature Communications found that sleep is essential for the brain’s ability to repair itself. More specifically, scientists found that during sleep essential DNA repair processes take place in the brain.
In the course of the study, the researchers from Bar-Ilan University observed zebrafish, species that are characterized by having transparent heads. With the use of a powerful microscope, the researchers were able to observe the brain of the zebrafish during sleeping and waking, and took time-lapsed images of individual neurons. They were then able to see that during sleep the process of DNA repair kicked off in their brains, reversing the DNA damage accumulated during the day.
According to the researchers, human brain cells also regularly accumulate DNA damage not only from exposure to radiation and other undesirable conditions but also as a result of the normal brain activity. Sleep allows for these cells to be repaired.
One of the study’s authors, Professor Lior Applebaum, explained why this complicated process takes place while we sleep, by comparing it to repairing potholes in the road. Speaking to Independent, he said: “Roads accumulate wear and tear, especially during daytime rush hours, and it is most convenient and efficient to fix them at night, when there is light traffic.”
The researchers think that this finding might explain the essential role of sleep for all animals with neural system including humans.
Sleep Deprivation Kills Your Brain Cells
In a study that was published in 2014 in the Journal of Neuroscience researchers from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine made an alarming discovery that lack of sleep can result in irreversible loss of brain neurons.
The study was conducted on mice, whose brain is known to be surprisingly similar to the human brain. The mice were put on a schedule similar to the one that is used by people who work night shifts or long hours. In each 24 hour period, the mice got only 4 to 5 hours of sleep.
The results were astounding. After just three day of this schedule, the sleep-deprived mice lost 25% of brain cells in part of the brain stem, the damage that seemed to be irreversible.
According to the study’s authors, because of the similarity between the brains of mice and humans, it is very likely that the human brain suffers from the same loss of neurons when deprived of adequate sleep. This is something that researchers planned to further investigate by conducting autopsies of shift workers.
Sleep Helps Brain ‘Detox’
Another study published in Science around the same time, found that during sleep a sort of detox process takes place in your brain, as it gets rid of harmful waste products, including some that have been linked to Alzheimer’s and dementia.
The study was conducted by researchers from the University of Rochester Medical Center (URMC) who used high-tech imaging to look into the brains of mice and found that their brains behaved very differently when awake and asleep. Specifically, the waste removal process happened ten times faster when the mice were sleeping, flushing out among other things the toxic protein amyloid-beta that is associated with Alzheimer’s.
The clean up process observed by the researchers happens with the help of the cerebrospinal fluid that flows through the spaces between neurons flushing waste into the circulatory system. During sleep, the researchers found, brain cells contract, leaving more space for the cerebrospinal fluid to do its job a lot more effectively.
Sleep Enables Brain Cells to Communicate Effectively
In a fourth study on brain and sleep published recently in Nature Medicine, researchers found neurological explanation to the mental sluggishness that is so familiar to any of us who’ve ever had to take an exam, drive a car or perform any other cognitively demanding activity while sleep deprived. Specifically, the study authors found that lack of sleep severely impairs the ability of brain cells to communicate effectively.
In the study, 12 participants who were preparing to undergo surgery for epilepsy (unrelated to the study) had electrodes implanted into their brains and were asked to stay up the entire night. Several times throughout the night, researchers asked them to categorize images of faces, places and animals as fast as possible. They noticed that as people got drowsier, their reactions got slower. The researchers monitored the brain activity at the same time, paying particular attention to neurons in the temporal lobe, which regulates visual perception and memory. They were able to see that the slowed down response time was due to the less effective communication between their brain cells.
One of the study’s authors, Dr. Itzhak Fried, a professor of neurosurgery at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) explained in a statement: “We discovered that starving the body of sleep also robs neurons of the ability to function properly. This paves the way for cognitive lapses in how we perceive and react to the world around us.”
This of course has direct consequences in everyday activities such as driving, and thus can have a fatal affect. “Severe fatigue exerts a similar influence on the brain to drinking too much,” Fried said. “Yet no legal or medical standards exist for identifying overtired drivers on the road the same way we target drunk drivers.”
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With sleep disorders rising around the world with every passing day, people are more interested in sleep aids than ever. Sleep aids come in various forms. They come as liquids and as pills, and sometimes even as a supplement in the form of powder. To make sleep aids easily accessible, most of them are available over-the-counter and don’t even require a prescription. Sleep aids used to be an easy way for people to commit suicide, but modern sleeping pills no longer have the potential to kill. If you overdose on sleeping pills, you’re only going to sleep for a long time and in the worst case scenario get very sick.
Modern sleep aids also incorporate natural ingredients to help people sleep without resorting to chemicals always. Although sleep aids are not a cure for sleep disorders and should not be consumed on a regular basis, they are popular everywhere because they are a fast and easy means of falling and staying asleep. To make sleeping pills safer, there are now the kinds that are made of melatonin, the sleep hormone. Because melatonin is a natural part of our body, consuming melatonin sleep aids are believed to have fewer side effects than regular sleep aids.
But melatonin can also make it hard for you to wake up on time every morning if you don’t know when to time its consumption. In this post, we discuss melatonin production, melatonin sleep aids, and the right time to take it.
What Is Melatonin?
Like all bodily functions, sleep is also controlled by hormones. The hormone for alertness is serotonin, and the hormone for sleep is melatonin. While sunshine and bright lights aid in the production of serotonin, darkness aids in the production of melatonin. Melatonin is normally produced only after sundown.
But hormonal imbalances are common in every individual, and if your melatonin production is not normal, you are going to have sleep issues. Being exposed to bright lights also hinders melatonin production and makes it hard for sleep to come at night. Blue light is one of the worst enemies of melatonin production. If you are exposed to electronic devices most of the time, you are more at risk for suffering from sleep disorders. This is because the blue light emitted from backlit electronic devices significantly hinders melatonin production.
For a healthy sleep-wake cycle, the serotonin and melatonin productions should be in balance. Lack of melatonin causes sleep disorders like insomnia whereas a lack of serotonin causes depression and low energy. Melatonin is produced by the part of the brain called the hypothalamus.
Melatonin Sleep Aid
Sleep aids are known to have various side effects. This led to the development of sleep aids made with melatonin, a hormone that’s naturally present in our bodies. However, melatonin sleep aids aren’t a solution to low melatonin production. They only help you fall asleep by increasing the amount of melatonin in your brain. If you don’t take it, your melatonin levels will go back to their previous state.
Melatonin sleep aids usually come in the form of a pill and should be taken before bedtime. Melatonin supplements are available over-the-counter and don’t require prescriptions. Melatonin supplements are either pure or compounded and added to other products. Pure melatonin supplements are always available as pills or capsules, but when they are mixed to other products, they are also available as liquids or sprays.
Because melatonin supplements are very potent and fast-acting, they should be taken only before bedtime.
Melatonin Supplement Dosage
Generally, melatonin supplements are available as over-the-counter drugs in most pharmacies. But they don’t require a prescription, are not regulated by the FDA, and have no fixed dosage. The appropriate dosage is usually mentioned on the pack but can also be misleading in many cases.
Before taking a melatonin supplement, it is important to consult a healthcare practitioner for the right dosage. Melatonin is more potent and faster acting than most other sleep aids and should be used judiciously to avoid side effects. Unlike other sleep aids, even the lowest dose of melatonin has been found effective in treating sleep issues. You don’t always have to take the highest dose for the maximum effect. To be on the safe side, it’s best to start with the lowest dosage.
There have so far been no adverse effects reported from melatonin supplements. However, the timing is everything in taking melatonin supplements. More important than the dose is the time when you are taking the supplement.
How Long Does Melatonin Last?
A lot of people new to melatonin supplements experience excessive sleepiness during the day after taking sleep aid at night. This is because of wrong timing.
The effects of melatonin last according to the dosage. A dosage of 0.5 mg will last only an hour while a 10 mg dosage will last more than seven hours. It all depends on how severe your condition. If you have infrequent episodes of sleeplessness, then a dosage of one or two milligrams should help you fall asleep. If you’re a chronic insomniac or suffer from the delayed onset of sleep, you need a dosage of 10mg or higher.
The effects of melatonin are also quick to go away. Taking higher doses isn’t the solution here. You simply have to time it right. If you simply want to get better sleep and don’t suffer from a sleep disorder, you should take the supplement no sooner than 30 minutes before going to bed. If you suffer from delayed sleep onset, you should take it at least an hour before going to bed.
If you have been diagnosed with a sleep disorder and also take other sleep aids, you should not start taking a melatonin supplement without consulting a doctor. Melatonin supplements are usually known to be safe and can also be given to children. However, dependence on any sleep aid isn’t recommended.
Although melatonin supplements are considered safer than most other sleep aids, they should be taken only if recommended by a doctor. Consuming the wrong supplements or medications can make your condition grow worse.
If you are looking for a sleep supplement that will keep you asleep, try Sleep Relief. It is biphasic which means different ingredients will kick in at different times so that you stay asleep all night and wake up well-rested. One drawback of this supplement is that the pills are a bit large so may be a turn off if you don’t like swallowing pills. Another option is Olly Sleep Gummies which are chewable and taste great. While they aren’t quite as strong as Sleep Relief, they have other natural ingredients that keep you asleep more than melatonin alone.