5 reasons sleep is essential for brain health

Getting plenty of sleep every day is one of the smartest investments we can make in both our short-term wellbeing (boosting mood and performance) and the long-term health of our brain. Here, we explain why.

Why sleep is essential for brain health

Sleep deprivation harms our cognitive function in all areas

Research shows that ongoing sleep deficits take a considerable toll on the brain. It damages our ability to learn, our motor function, cognitive performance and reaction time – a little like being drunk. In fact, while the dangers of drink driving are front of mind in the public consciousness, sleep deprivation causes more road traffic accidents than those caused by drugs and alcohol combined.

Sleep clears toxins from our brain

Have you heard of the lymphatic system? This is the network of vessels that transports a clear fluid called lymph around our body, clearing away any waste products.

In recent years, researchers have discovered the glymphatic system – the brain’s own lymphatic system. Sleep appears to play a vital role in supporting the glymphatic system. While the process of clearing away toxins takes place when we’re awake, it’s twice as effective when we’re asleep as our synapses expand by up to 60% in size making space for a more thorough clean-up job.

Sleep deprivation speeds up brain ageing

Extended periods of wakefulness can injure our brain cells and research shows that this damage may be permanent. Sleep deprivation has also been linked to a loss of brain volume. This is because chemicals that are released during the deeper sleep stages (NREM) are crucial for our brain’s repair processes.

Getting plenty of sleep may reduce our risk of Alzheimer’s disease

Sleep disturbance is both a symptom and risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease. A 2009 study in mice found that sleep deprivation increases the concentration of amyloid beta plaques in the brain. These plaques have been associated with the development of the disease.

This finding has also been replicated in humans in a recent trial. Shorter self-reported sleep duration was associated with a higher concentration of this plaque on the brain. Similarly, a study of just under 300 women has found that among older women, sleep disordered breathing (such as sleep apnea) increased their risk of cognitive impairment. Further studies also suggest that getting plenty of sleep can mitigate the effect of the APOE4 gene, which is a well-established risk factor for the disease.

Sleep cools inflammation

Skipping sleep is a surefire way to send our stress hormones into overdrive, increasing levels of inflammatory cytokines in the body.

Research shows these proteins can damage brain cells and may increase our risk of cognitive decline and mood disorders.

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