Even though sleep science is complex and there are many facts left to be uncovered by scientists, there are some things we know for certain, such as the fact that getting enough quality sleep is as paramount as eating healthy and staying hydrated. We spend approximately a third of our lives asleep, so it comes as no surprise that it affects most processes that occur in the body, like your immune system, hormone levels, and your heart. In this article, we will focus on how sleep helps the brain and what the benefits of getting enough sleep every night are.
You will also learn about the stages of sleep, how many hours you should sleep at night, and some general tips on improving your sleep hygiene.
Let’s start by examining what exactly occurs in our brain while we sleep.
What Happens to Our Brain When We Sleep?
Before we delve into all the ways that sleep positively (and negatively) affects the brain, let’s explore what processes occur within our bodies when we fall asleep.
Even though sleep has been studied for centuries, there are some areas of sleep science we have yet to discover. One of the main functions of sleep is to get rid of the waste from our brains and aid cognitive processes such as learning or memory. In order for that to happen, we first have to go through several stages of sleep.
The scientific consensus is that there are a total of four stages of sleep. Most of us have heard of REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, but in order for our brains to reach that point, we have to undergo several shorter stages. The first three belong to non-REM sleep, and the fourth stage is the familiar REM stage – the part of our sleep cycle most of us recognize, one that includes dreaming.
During the first stage of non-REM sleep, our bodies drift from being awake to sleeping. This period only lasts for a couple of minutes, giving the body ample time to relax and the brain to start to slow down.
The second stage of non-REM sleep involves a slow drop of temperature and heart rate, as well as slowed down brain waves.
The third and final stage of non-REM sleep is crucial for our overall sleep quality and how we feel when we wake up in the morning. During this sleeping stage, the brain waves and the other functions of the body slow down even further and you’re less prone to being woken up than in the previous stages.
Lastly, the REM stage is the most fascinating and researched out of all four. Most of our dreams happen during this stage which happens approximately 90 minutes after we initially fall asleep. If you’ve ever watched a person dreaming, you can probably guess what this stage entails – the heart rate increases, the breathing becomes more rapid and irregular, and we’re most prone to being woken up by noise or movement. Another interesting phenomenon that occurs is that our extremities become paralyzed to protect us from hurting ourselves when we sleep. Sounds great, right? REM sleep gradually shortens as we age, which explains why elderly people are less prone to dreaming.
Now that we’ve established what the sleep stages are, it’s time to briefly explain an equally important mechanism of sleep: the circadian rhythm.
The circadian rhythm is essentially the body’s natural 24-hour cycle that helps us attain an optimal sleeping pattern. Apart from sleeping, it helps optimize other body processes as well, such as eating. It’s heavily influenced by our environment; for instance, we are programmed to stay alert during the day due to the light exposure, while we slowly start preparing for bed as our melatonin levels rise during the late hours of the day.
This is why maintaining a consistent circadian rhythm is essential for optimal health, and also why an imbalanced circadian rhythm is one of the main reasons behind many sleeping disorders.
Benefits of Sleep for Brain Health
It comes as no surprise to know that sleep is crucial for optimal brain performance. And now that we know what happens to our brain and our body when we enter the four stages of sleep and why having a balanced circadian rhythm is so important, let’s see exactly how sleep benefits our brain health.
Here are some of the benefits you can experience with a regular and adequate sleeping schedule.
Learning, Neuroplasticity, and Memory
Neuroplasticity is essentially the brain’s ability to form new synapses and patterns. As we grow older, our ability to expand our brain becomes less optimal; however, by getting a healthy amount of sleep every night, we can improve our ability to learn new things and skills, as well as improve our existing skills. In other words, when you sleep, the brain rests and rebuilds itself to become stronger and more resilient.
Sleeping also helps our brain think faster, stay concentrated, and retain more information. These functions are crucial for maintaining our mental agility, especially as we become older. Hopefully, we’ve convinced you why pulling an all-nighter might not be the best idea before an important exam.
In terms of memory, another extremely fascinating function of our brains during sleep is its ability to sift through various memories we’ve made during the day and keep those it deems worthy of attaining.
Sleep and Growth Hormone
Somatotropin, or human growth hormone, plays a crucial role in cell reproduction and generation. In other words, it’s the hormone behind muscle growth, skin repair, and many other wonderful processes that occur in our bodies.
So, apart from optimizing our brain function, a regular sleeping schedule can also make us look better and get stronger in the gym.
Sleep as Detox
The notion that our brains detoxify themselves when we sleep is unlikely to be foreign to you. Just like the memories we’ve accumulated during the day, we also have a large number of toxins at our disposal. Luckily, our brains get rid of the harmful toxins while we sleep at night, allowing us to wake up with a clean slate.
The area of your brain that does most of the detoxing as we sleep is called the glymphatic system. The accumulation of toxins has been associated with various neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease. By sleeping enough hours during the night and getting quality sleep, we’re helping our brain remain as healthy as possible in the long run.
Sleep Keeps Your Appetite in Check
Most of us are aware of the fact that a lack of sleep can cause us to eat more than we usually do and gain weight. But how exactly does sleep deprivation increase our hunger levels?
Sleep plays a crucial role in regulating the hormones in our body. If we don’t get enough sleep, our brain releases more ghrelin, the hormone associated with feelings of hunger that causes us to feel hungrier, resulting in a higher calorie input throughout the day.
Additionally, sleep deprivation is also associated with feeling less full after a meal. Not to mention, when we’re sleep-deprived, we’re more likely to seek comfort food high in fats, sugar, etc, which is almost always a less healthy option.
It’s truly a vicious cycle – sleeping less hours causes our hunger hormone to increase, and overeating can cause sleep disturbances. Having a regular sleeping schedule and sleeping enough hours during the day is imperative to maintain a healthy body weight and avoid the urge to go for heavy and unhealthy meals.
How Many Hours Should I Sleep a Night?
Hopefully, by now you’re motivated to improve your sleeping patterns and start getting a better quality of sleep. One question you might ask yourself is: exactly how many hours of sleep do I need every night?
The answer depends on your age. Babies typically sleep up to 18 hours a day, whereas children should sleep anywhere from 9 to 10 hours a day, which enables their optimal growth and development. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, most adults need 7-9 hours of sleep a night.
As we grow older, our ability to get deep, restorative sleep gradually declines and we’re more prone to waking up in the middle of the night or suffering from conditions that negatively impact the quality of our sleep. Regardless, people over 65 should aim to get at least 7 to 8 hours of sleep every night.
That being said, every adult is different and some variables enter the equation. Some people need to sleep more hours to function properly. On the other hand, some healthy individuals can get away with sleeping six hours per night. If you have a physically demanding job, or you’re an athlete who works out for hours on end every day, you might need more sleep than the average person.
How Sleep Deprivation Impacts the Brain
On the flip side, failing to get the proper amount of sleep can result in many problems regarding our cognitive abilities. Here are some examples of what constant sleep deprivation can do to our brains.
According to a study conducted by Andy Eugene and Jolanta Masiak, “There are many consequences that occur as a result of lack of sleep to our body as well as our well-being. But most importantly studies have shown lack of sleep can hinder memory recall in the brain as well as elevate stress levels.” Not only will your ability to retain information be impacted, but you will also experience some side effects that aren’t related to your brain due to the increased stress levels.
Sleep deprivation also makes us more prone to mood swings and hinders our ability to concentrate. Needless to say, this can disrupt your daily life in a myriad of ways, whether it’s related to suboptimal performance in the workplace or in college.
Poor sleep hygiene also impairs our decision-making process and reaction time. Apart from temporary side effects, prolonged sleep deprivation can also lead to many serious effects on our brain and body, such as paranoia, depersonalization, and hallucinations. If you suspect that you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, we recommend seeing a doctor immediately.
How to Get a Good Night’s Sleep
If you find yourself waking up feeling tired and groggy, or you toss and turn while in bed unable to fall asleep, here are a few of tips that will help you improve your sleep hygiene.
Have a Set Nighttime Routine
Relaxing before you go to bed is one of the easiest steps you can take in improving the quality of your sleep. Whether it’s reading, doing yoga, or listening to calming music, having a routine you follow regularly will help train your mind that it’s time to go to bed.
Put Technology Away
The blue light that radiates from technological devices disrupts our sleep schedule by tricking our brain into thinking it’s daytime, which, in turn, makes us feel alert and awake. Try to put your electronic devices away at least an hour prior to going to sleep.
Work Out in the Morning
Late-night workouts might be the reason why you can’t seem to fall asleep at night. If your schedule allows it, try to work out in the earlier part of your day, so you can use all your energy throughout the day and not feel restless when you finally lie down in bed.
Find a Quality Mattress
Sleeping on a poor quality mattress is a common reason why people wake up feeling drowsy and lacking energy. Choose a mattress that will provide adequate support and comfort based on your personal preferences, preferred sleeping position, and needs.
Monitor Your Caffeine
Caffeine is a notorious culprit for chaotic sleeping schedules. The caffeine in your system can last for hours on end, so that innocuous afternoon coffee might be the reason why you can’t fall asleep at night. If drinking coffee later on in the day is a beloved habit of yours, try switching to decaf coffee and see if your sleeping improves.
Does Sleeping Make Your Brain Work Better?
Yes, sleeping directly improves your overall cognitive function including concentration, information retention, and problem-solving skills.
What Part of the Brain Controls the Sleep-Wake Cycle?
The brain stem, commonly referred to as the base of the brain, sends signals to your hypothalamus to shift between sleeping and being awake.
What Are the Benefits of Sleeping?
Some of the benefits of sleeping include better immunity, bigger muscle growth, improved neuroplasticity, and detoxing.
We hope this article helped you understand how sleep helps the brain and what the implications of sleep deprivation can be. There are a plethora of benefits that occur as a result of quality sleep such as better cognitive performance, improved memory, forming new synapses, and having healthy appetite levels. On the other hand, some side-effects of poor sleep hygiene include increased risk of certain neurological disorders, mood swings, and memory loss. Some tips you can try out to improve your overall sleep quality include making a nighttime routine, putting electronic devices away before going to bed, and working out in the early morning.
- Eugene A.R., Masiak J. The Neuroprotective Aspects of Sleep. Medtube Sci. 2015;3:35–40. [https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4651462/]