We all know that getting a good night’s rest is important. It helps keep our immune system healthy and allows us to function properly throughout the day. However, we’ve all experienced those days after either a late night or a restless night in bed where we don’t feel as sharp, and our brain is a little foggy.
Sometimes that “sleep debt,” or the total amount of sleep lost due to poor sleep, can be harder to make up than you think. And in addition, that sleep deprivation might be having serious effects on the brain and could be doing unrepairable damage. Just as the rest of our body needs sleep to stay healthy, so does our brain.
What is Sleep Deprivation?
Simply put, sleep deprivation is when you do not get enough sleep. The number of hours of sleep a person needs varies from person to person. However, most adults require seven to nine hours of good-quality sleep every night.
Sleep deprivation occurs when you don’t get that many hours, whether due to an underlying health condition or another extenuating circumstance, such as work or stress. There are two main types of sleep deprivation: acute sleep deprivation and chronic sleep deprivation.
Acute sleep deprivation is when there is a short-term interruption in your sleep. For example, if you stay up late binge-watching your favorite television show, that is considered acute sleep deprivation. Chronic sleep deprivation occurs when you suffer from inadequate sleep for a prolonged period – weeks, months, or even years.
Symptoms of Sleep Deprivation
The most significant telltale sign that you’re sleep deprived is the overwhelming feeling of exhaustion and fatigue. If you’re struggling to stay awake or are having difficulty concentrating or thinking clearly, there’s a good chance you’re not getting enough sleep.
Other symptoms include:
- Diminished sex drive
- Memory issues
- Lack of motivation
- Poor judgment
If you’re experiencing any of these signs of sleep deprivation, you should have an honest conversation with your provider. Your symptoms could just be related to lack of sleep, or they could be signaling you’re suffering from an underlying health condition.
It’s important that you address your sleep deprivation to prevent long-term damage. Because regardless if your sleep deprivation is acute or chronic, it’s affecting your brain and quality of life.
How Sleep Deprivation Affects Your Brain
Sleep is vital for the health of your brain. Without good sleep, you can’t focus or learn properly, as poor sleep affects a part of the brain called the hippocampus, which is key for making new memories. Lack of sleep also drops your ability to learn new things by 40 percent.
Contrary to what you may believe, your brain is still very much active when you’re asleep. It’s during your slumber when brain waves are produced that help transfer memories from the hippocampus to the prefrontal cortex-where long-term memories are stored.
In addition to storing and making memories, research has found that sleep, particularly deep sleep when you’re not dreaming, is integral in reducing your risk of Alzheimer’s. Poor sleep is a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease in that during your deep sleep stage (non-REM), your brain is busy cleansing and washing away toxins and waste that have formed throughout the day. And one of those wastes is beta-amyloid – a precursor protein that is known to contribute to the onset of Alzheimer’s.
So, with that theory, if you don’t get enough sleep, your brain will accumulate more and more beta-amyloid until a plaque is formed. In a brain with Alzheimer’s, abnormal levels of plaque begin to collect between neurons and disrupt cell function, thus leading to memory loss and dementia.
Give Your Brain the “Sleep” It Needs
There’s no way around it. Sleep is essential to brain health. And it’s important to note that the sleep debt you build up now may not be able to be paid back later. Sleep deprivation can ultimately come with some costly effects on your brain. So you have to do all you can now to protect your brain and health for the future.
You can accomplish this by establishing a good sleep schedule and nightly routine that promotes a healthy sleeping environment. For example, don’t sleep with lights on or lights in the dark, such as a nightlight or a clock light, that will distract you and keep you from sleeping. Instead, create an environment conducive to a good night’s rest. Because quality is just as important as quantity when it comes to sleep!