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How Sleep Is Linked to Brain Health

20 April 2023

Sleep is an essential part of our daily routines. In fact, while we don't realize it, we spend about one-third of our lives sleeping! Sleep is just as important to our survival as food and water. Without sleep, we'd exhaust ourselves and stop functioning, because of how crucial it is to our brain health - and our brains are what keep us going!

We all do need sleep, but we still don't quite know why. That is, we understand the effects of sleep and what it does, but we don't realize why all of this requires sleeping. But good sleep affects pretty much every part of our body - from our heart and lungs to our brain and immune system.

So how exactly is sleep linked to brain health?



Understanding Sleep

Sleep & Circadian Rhythms

Our brain's suprachiasmatic nucleus - or the master clock - is responsible for controlling a lot of the systems of the body which have rhythmic patterns. Our body has a number of these because there are things that it does in cycles without us realizing it. Sleep is one of them!

Our cycle of rest and activity is synced with each other in a way that helps the body function the right way. This means that we don't just sleep, each individual cell is responsible for regulating how, when, and why we sleep!

The circadian rhythm is an almost 24-hour biological rhythm and is genetically regulated by our cells. But it's not just a one-way system. Not only do our bodies affect the circadian rhythm, but the circadian rhythm also affects our bodies.

Sleep Drive

Another process that regulates sleep is sleep drive. This is where your body is driven towards sleep, just like it gets driven towards food when you feel hungry. As you go without sleep, your desire for it builds until it hits a certain point where you simply cannot go without sleep.

At this point, your body will put you to sleep on its own. Unlike hunger, where your body can't exactly force you to eat - though it certainly drives you towards it - when your sleep drive is high, it can put you to sleep, no matter where you are or what you're doing.

When your body is exhausted, it even engages in a few seconds of microsleep at a time when your eyes are open.



How Sleep Affects Brain Health

As we already discussed, sleep is very closely linked to our overall health. Without adequate sleep, you're not only opening up the doors to problems like heart disease and diabetes but also to neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer's.

There is plenty of research to show that sleep disturbances, where you wake up in the middle of the night and get sleep in fragments rather than in one long stretch, also increase the risk factor for such diseases.

Research also shows that when we get good sleep, the fluids between our neurons are able to get rid of toxic buildup much better. Without this flush out process, the risk of degenerative diseases goes up. Brain cells are very sensitive to the environment they are in, so any toxins can actually interfere very deeply with the way they function.

Because the brain doesn't have the typical lymphatic system for flushing out toxins, it requires good sleep for this plumbing and removal of toxins. Think of it the same way you would about a party - you don't start cleaning up until all your guests have gone home, and your brain is the same. It functions and operates despite the toxins when you are awake, but recognizes that these toxins are harmful. That's why you need to sleep to get rid of them when other kinds of operations aren't taking place.

If you aren't getting a good amount of quality sleep, you're going to find that you're feeling a bit foggy and not quite up to your usual activities. This is because a healthy amount of sleep is necessary for your brain's plasticity, which is its ability to adapt to input. That is, when you feed it new information, it is able to process it and adjust the way you think as a result.

If you're not getting enough or good amounts of sleep, this is affected, which results in poor performance and understanding during the day and then further problems with recall later on in the future.

In fact, in another roundabout way, sleep also affects our brain health through other systems. Think about it - sleep is necessary for healthy cardiovascular function, which includes the pumping of blood throughout the body. That includes the brain! If you don't get enough sleep, your heart is affected and as a result, your brain doesn't get enough blood, which results in decreased function.



How Much Is Enough?

So, we understand why sleep is important and how it can affect us, but how much should we actually be sleeping?

The general recommendation is about 7 to 8 hours for adults, though this number varies depending on the person. Some people need less sleep than others - and these are also usually those who are healthier than others - but you shouldn't be getting any less than 6 hours per night.

While it's impossible to always have just the right amount of sleep every day, it is possible to do our best to get as much as we can! A sleepless night here or there is okay, but chronic problems can have more serious impacts and should be looked into.

You can assess whether you're getting enough sleep by considering how you feel when you're awake during the day. Don't make your assessment based on how much sleep you get when the sun is out! Healthy sleep involves following circadian rhythms - and thus, relies on how much you're sleeping at night.

If you think your body's functionality, your focus, and attentiveness are affected, you may need better sleep.

Measuring Sleep

While we can't scientifically measure every part of the sleep cycle on our own without the right technology, things like fitness watches and apps can help provide us with a fair bit of insight into our sleep schedule and patterns. For example, with a fitness watch, you can measure the changes in your physical body that take place when you enter REM sleep and use these to predict whether you're in deep sleep or not.

These apps are also not measuring your sleep in a controlled environment, so you get a better understanding of your average patterns and regularity, instead of just a day or week's worth of sleep.



Improving Sleep

A fair percentage of people around the world suffer from sleep disorders, which can be dangerous in the long run. So how do you improve your sleep?

Pharmaceuticals

One way to improve sleep - and the most common one - is to use medicines or supplements. However, this doesn't always help because they don't always provide you with deep sleep, and in other cases, make you sleep too much. It's important to sleep the right amount, get your deep sleep earlier in the night and have it dissipate when morning comes.

Melatonin can help, especially as you get older since our body's melatonin levels go down as we age, but be careful about your dosage since high doses of melatonin can affect your cardiovascular system and cause further problems.

Furniture

Yes, you read that right. Your bed may be what's preventing you from sleeping comfortably and thus affecting your sleep as a whole. For example, if your bed isn't soft enough, or if it's too soft, you may have trouble sleeping. If your sleeping posture is affected as a result of your furniture, you may be in too much pain when you lie down to get enough sleep.

For such cases, you can opt for an adjustable bed base like Flexispot's S3 which allows you to shift your bed and thus find a better position for yourself. Your sleeping posture greatly affects the level of quality sleep you get because if you are constantly in pain, your sleep will naturally be disturbed.

Sleep is a very important part of our lives, without which we can easily fall into poor health. If you have any sleep concerns, it's always a good idea to consult a professional who can help you with medication, lifestyle changes, and anything else that can get you better sleep - and thus, better health.