Why Do Our Brains Need Sleep?
We think of sleep as something we do when the day’s work is done—but when we doze off, our brain’s work is just getting started. Take a deeper dive into how the brain improves our health during sleep, and how we can help that process along.
It Clears Out Toxins
During sleep, our brain cells shrink, causing the space between the cells to increase. Just like unplugging a bathtub creates space for water to flow down the drain, this increase in space makes room for “the brain to flush out toxins” accumulated during waking hours. These include toxic molecules related to neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s, which can accumulate in the space between cells.
Dr. Maiken Nedergaard believes that this process only occurs during sleep because it takes up so much energy. She states, “It’s probably not possible for the brain to both clean itself and at the same time [be] aware of [its] surroundings and talk and move and so on.” Clearing out toxins is a complex process that requires little to no distractions.
It Forms New Cells
Research suggests that sleep assists with the process of neurogenesis, or the creation of nerve cells in the brain. When deprived of sleep, test rats were found to produce less than half of the cells that they would under normal circumstances. Additional studies have shown that cells that develop during periods of sleep-deprivation don’t mature normally.
One of the areas most affected by neurogenesis is the hippocampus, which plays a critical role in learning and memory. Scientists suspect that this may be the reason why sleep deprivation causes disruptions in our memory and mood. Speaking of which…
It Creates and Consolidates Memories
During sleep, the brain not only forms new memories, but also consolidates and links recent memories to older ones. As a result, when we don’t sleep, our ability to learn new information can drop by as much as 40 percent. This explains why pulling all-nighters before big presentations or exams typically doesn’t pay off.
It Heals Brain Injuries
While popular mythos tell us to avoid sleep after a brain injury, rest is one of the most effective ways to help our brains heal. Recent studies have raised the possibility that maintaining healthy sleep patterns post-injury can reduce the amount of time it takes to recover. For this reason, hospitals are being encouraged to help patients with brain injuries maintain normal sleeping patterns by doing things like making sure they are in well-lit rooms during the day and dimly-lit rooms at night.
How Neurofeedback Aids the Process
The best way to assist the brain in its work is to practice good sleep hygiene: follow a regular sleep schedule, avoid electronics before bed, limit caffeine intake, sleep in a cool and dark room, etc. But sometimes, these steps aren’t enough.
In these instances, many people have found success turning to neurofeedback. Neurofeedback is a form of brain therapy in which we observe brain activity and then teach the brain to regulate itself in a healthier way.
Evidence suggests that “training brain patterns using neurofeedback” helps us regulate our sleep. Indeed, Viva Clinician Melanie Shapiro confirms that neurofeedback is a reliable way to regulate the overarousal that often prevents us from getting good night’s rest.
“[P]eople have come in and made great progress,” Shapiro states. She also notes that neurofeedback can help us regulate the cognitive functions that are affected by sleep, such as our abilities to focus, create memories, and make decisions.
Sleep: A Necessity
Our brains perform some of their most energy-consuming, essential work while we’re resting, so it’s important that we get the right amount of sleep (roughly 7-9 hours for adults, according to the Sleep Foundation) each night. Otherwise, Harvard’s Division of Sleep Medicine notes that we might experience reduced efficiency and judgment, and an increased chance of injuring ourselves or developing long-term illnesses like diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
If you’re struggling with your sleep hygiene, activities like neurofeedback or other methods like mindfulness meditation can be helpful. You can also try easy, everyday solutions like drinking milk before bed (it’s high in tryptophan, an amino acid that induces sleep) or making sure your room is between 60-65 degrees Fahrenheit when your head hits the pillow.
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