While the feel-good effects of sleep are pleasurable, sleep is truly a requirement of optimal functioning. Conversely, insufficient shut-eye jeopardizes our health; experts recommend between seven to nine hours a night for optimal performance. Poor sleep is linked to cardiac disease, weight gain, and hypertension, as well as being a potential predictor of Alzheimer’s Disease…but it’s sleep’s effect on our brain that is most integral to our overall health and wellness.
When we don’t get enough sleep, our amygdala is affected. This part of the brain acts as the trigger point for the fight or flight response, and without proper sleep, it can disturb our ability to regulate our emotions and increase our anxiety levels! Researchers at Tel Aviv University found that “just one night of sleeplessness changes your ability to regulate emotions and allocate brain resources necessary for objective cognitive processing.” Notice when in sleep deficit mode, there is a tendency to overreact rather than to respond mindfully to external circumstances.
Sleep can help us to better manage our emotional reactions. As we’ve begun to understand how sleep impacts the function of the amygdala, we realize how a lack of consistent sleep can be directly linked to weakened levels of self-control. This part of the brain’s limbic system also regulates the strength of our willpower. When the brain is not well rested, our ability to restrain our emotions is impaired.
Psychomotor performance is the way that the brain coordinates our cognitive processes and our motor activity (i.e., driving a car, walking up a flight of stairs, or dropping a hot frying pan). In this study of night shift nurses, there was, unsurprisingly, a direct correlation between lack of sleep and their performance on the job. As their sleep duration decreased their psychomotor performance showed a reciprocal decline.
“It used to be thought that sleep was by the brain, of the brain, for the brain,” says Harvard Medical School researcher, Dr. Charles Czeisler. Now it’s recognized that it plays an important role in bodily functions.” Hormonal shifts occur in those who are sleep deprived; there’s a notable increase in both cortisol (the stress hormone) and ghrelin (the appetite-increasing hormone).
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Sleep takes out the “trash” by utilizing the glymphatic system to purge the brain of organic waste materials that build up during the day and unwanted proteins- some of which have been linked to an increase in the risk of Alzheimer’s. Maiken Nedergaard of the University of Rochester Medical Center reinforces that “Sleep changes the cellular structure of the brain. It appears to be a completely different state (than during waking hours).”
During the hours we’re asleep, our brain processes the information that it was exposed to during our waking hours. This consolidation of information improves learning, retention, and our decision making skills. When we are sleep deprived, our ability for recall, attention to present moment details, and organization of new information are all compromised. Without the capacity to organize and strategize, tasks that range from the mundane to the essential can fall through the cracks.
In an interview with Shape Magazine, Namni Goel, Ph.D., a biological psychologist and sleep expert at the University of Pennsylvania, she talks about how a lack of sleep impedes vital brain processes:
“Too little sleep disrupts the neural pathways that allow information to travel smoothly from one area of your brain to another. Your thoughts are like a train diverted onto the wrong set of tracks and taking the slow route to town. As a result, your working memory, which handles decision-making and problem solving, struggles to perform normally when you’re wiped out.”
Sound sleep can be the tool that helps to build a better brain. When we get enough sleep, we prime our brains for optimal functioning. We are more alert, our moods are elevated, our mental function improves, we are better able to concentrate, our communication flows more smoothly, and we’re better able to control our impulses!