6 Ways Sleep Affects the Brain

Your body may seem at complete rest while sleeping, but your brain is hard at work doing a number of things, from making connections and arranging events, to solving problems and more. Sleep is extremely important for your brain and overall health.

The RAND research group has found the U.S. loses more than $411 billion per year, between poor performance at work, and completely lost work due to lack of sleep.

Here are some reasons why you need sleep, and how it helps your brain function properly.

Sleep Improves Memory

As per a Harvard study, dreaming helps reactive and reorganize what you have learned recently. This in turn helps improve memory and improve performance as well. Several studies have confirmed that even a brief nap may help improve memory and learning.

  • In another Harvard study, college student volunteers memorized pairs of unrelated words, worked on a maze puzzle, and copied an intricate figure. All were tested on their work, and half were allowed to nap for 45 minutes. During a retest, napping boosted the performance of volunteers who initially did well on the test, but didn’t help those who scored poorly the first time around.

During sleep, your brain works to consolidate long-term memory by strengthening neural connections. Your brain makes many connections during the day, but it checks all of them during sleep and streamlines the ones it really ‘needs’. Many people will confirm that they find it better to remember things when they ‘sleep over’ something.

  • In one study, participants had to learn a motor routine (tapping buttons in a certain order). When learning the task and recalling the task were separated by a night of sleep, rather than the same amount of time during waking hours, the participants did much better.

It is also important to point out that sleep may also nail down negative memories. It means that when your brain consolidates negative memories during sleep, it will become difficult to suppress them later. Those bad memories will stick around, and play a role in depression and PTSD.

Sleep Clears Toxins from Your Body

6 Ways Sleep Affects the Brain

Some studies have confirmed that sleep helps clear toxins from your brain, especially those related to Alzheimer’s disease. It means that getting enough rest every night lowers your risk of Alzheimer’s disease. As per a study on mice, it happens because the flow of cerebrospinal fluid in the brain goes up during sleep, which in turn helps wash away waste proteins.

The imaging results of the brains of mice have found that during the sleep, the glymphatic system becomes 10-times more active. Moreover, the brain cells shrink during sleep creating more interstitial space in the brain to facilitate the flow of cerebrospinal fluid. That increased flow is also responsible for clearing the toxins from your brain.

Sleep Improves Cognitive Function

Anyone with sleep deprivation would tell you how it affects their cognitive capacities. Not getting enough rest will have an impact on everything from attention and cognition, to decision-making and more. Sleep deprivation has a direct impact on higher cortical function, which in turn will make multitasking difficult.

Driving, for instance, is an intensive multitasking activity because it uses your feet, hands, awareness of your surrounds, vision, and more. Experts say that you should not drive when you are sleep deprived, and that is mainly because your brain will not be in a position to multitask.

Researchers have also found that sleep deprivation can also affect cognitive functions, such as working memory and attention. In fact, a loss of a couple of hours of shut eye per night for a couple of weeks will have a negative effect on your performance on neurobehavioral tasks that involve short-term memory and attention.

Sleep Improves Creativity

6 Ways Sleep Affects the Brain, CreativityResearchers have found that the function of sleep is essential for both creativity and learning. When you are not sleep deprived, you are likely to learn better and feel more creative. In fact, studies have found that if you learn something and then take a short nap, you are likely to memorize it better.

Your problem-solving abilities go up during sleep, which is why you are likely to find a more creative solution to a problem when you sleep over it. The restructuring of the brain connections that takes place during sleep, is the reason why it improves your creativity and problem-solving abilities. That is probably another reason why many people are at their creative best soon after waking up in the morning.

How creative you feel also depends on the duration of REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, during which your brain waves take the form of the activity you have experienced during your waking state and, when this happens, your eyes move side to side while remaining closed. This is an intense dreaming stage, which helps with creativity and boosts your abstract problem solving skills.

  • A Harvard Medical School study, scientists reported that subjects can solve 30% more anagram word puzzles when they are tested after waking up from REM sleep than non-REM. More recent research published in 2012 similarly found that sleep is particularly good at helping people solve complex problems.

To help solve a tricky problem, keep reminding yourself about it while going to sleep. This will stimulate your unconscious mind, and you are likely to find a solution to that problem when you wake up.

  • A 1993 Harvard study found that when they asked themselves a question before bed, half of participants dreamt about the issue, and a quarter found a solution in their dreams.

It also means you should pay attention to your dreams; in fact, keeping track of your dreams may actually inspire you for new creative projects.

Sleep Lowers Risk of Depression

Many studies have established a link between sleep deprivation and depression. The connection is quite vicious actually. When you are in depression, you will find it difficult to sleep. That sleep deprivation will go on to make your depression symptoms even worse. That is why you often need to take antidepressants to promote better sleep, and control your depression symptoms.

Sometimes, insomnia or lack of sleep is the result of another medical illness. Whatever the cause, the inability to sleep will make your depression worse. Interestingly, oversleeping may also be a sign of clinical depression. Some studies have confirmed that people who take less than six hours of sleep, or sleep more than eight hours a night, are likely to have depression.

Sleep Promotes Growth in Children

6 Ways Sleep Affects the Brain, Sleeping Child Baby

Not many parents are aware of it, but sleep deprivation can hit young kids as well. In fact, you may notice the effects of sleep deprivation when your child gets one fewer hour for four nights.

Some studies have found that children who take fewer than ten hours of sleep a night before age 3, are three times more likely to have impulsivity and hyperactivity problems by age 6.

It is important to keep in mind though that if you feel that your child is distracted and impulsive, it does not mean they have ADHD. It might only be because they are tired. Nevertheless, it is vital that you do not rule out any sleep issues just yet.

Another interesting thing to learn is that rest is extremely important for your newborn baby. While they may look very peaceful while sleeping, there is so much happening underneath the serene surface. Researchers have found that newborns learn when they’re asleep. For instance:

  • Researchers at Columbia University Medical Center played certain sounds for sleeping newborns, followed with a gentle puff of air on their eyelids. Within 20 minutes, the sleeping babies (who were between 1 and 2 days old) had already learned to anticipate the air puff by squinting.

It implies that adequate sleep is important to promote learning in kids of all ages.

  • Neuroscientists at the University of Massachusetts Amherst taught a group of 40 preschoolers a game similar to Memory. Then the kids took a nap (averaging 77 minutes) one week and stayed awake the other week. When they stayed awake they forgot 15 percent of what they’d learned, but when they napped they retained everything. The kids scored better on the game not only after they’d just woken up, but the next day too.

It is worth mentioning that sleep deprivation is bad for kids, but it works differently in kids as compared to adults. A recent study has found sleep deprivation in kids affect the back regions of the brain, whereas the front regions of the brain are affected with sleep deprivation in adults.It certainly affects brain development in kids, and is therefore important to ensure that your child is getting enough sleep each day to stay healthy.

Sleep and Overall Health

Along with affecting your mental health, sleep deprivation can also affect your physical health and longevity. Many disorders and diseases are linked to sleep deprivation. A recent study has confirmed that when you get an average of three hours of sleep in a day, it will have a negative impact on your cardiovascular system. There may be an increase in contractility of your heart, heart rate, blood pressure, and the stress hormone cortisol. Similarly, a lack of sleep is directly linked to obesity, which stems from poorer glucose control. Just keep in mind that just like sleep deprivation, getting more than nine hours of is also linked to health related problems. So, be sure to find a right balance to have a health mind and body!

Check out another one of our articles – can you become smarter overnight?

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1 comment on '6 Ways Sleep Affects the Brain'

  1. Great article! I have been treating by patient symptoms for 15 years, and I totally have seen these type improvement in symptoms. I often explain to my patients about the blood brain barrier and how without deep sleep the proteins accumulate in the brain, eventually leading to dementia, etc. Also I have seen improvement in almost all patients in what patients like to call brain fog. For me patients almost always have cognitive function improvement. I have also found the direct connection to TMJ pain and headaches, most daily headaches, especially the morning headaches, and migraines. The direct connection factor in my opinion is the stress reactions caused by airflow interruption, release of stress hormones, which almost always results in clenching or grinding. The external pterygoids which I evaluate on every patient are usually a large factor. I do a TMJ balanced oral sleep appliance which addresses most of the issues and I see a success rate over 95%.. Dr Ron Perkins

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