What Happens To Your Brain When You Don't Sleep Enough? Science Says It's Not Pretty
I am a proud millennial. I work hard, play harder, and snooze in between the hustle. Unfortunately, though, that whole “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” mantra isn’t really doing us any favors outside of scoring us a solid work-life balance. And it isn’t just our generation getting flack for lack of sleep, either, by the way. Anyone who isn’t clocking in the recommended six to eight hours of snooze time is losing out because, the truth is, what happens to your brain when you don’t sleep is actually pretty scary. Feeling discombobulated in the morning should be the least of your worries.
"The correct amount of sleep improves cognitive skills, helps the body fight off illness, increases safety, and improves a person's mood," Julia Walsh, a certified sleep consultant with Good Night Sleep Site, tells Elite Daily. "Lack of sleep decreases the ability to pay attention, motor coordination, and decision-making skills, which can make simple tasks (i.e. walking, driving, and learning new skills) dangerous.”
We all know by now that quality sleep is essential if we want to feel physically and mentally healthy, but for the most part, we only feel the drowsy side effects and dire need for caffeine. Behind the scenes, though, lack of sleep does quite a number on your brain, and the following potential long-term effects are really concerning. Here's what could happen to your brain if you're not getting enough sleep.
1. Your Brain Won't Be Able To Learn New Skills Over Time
Your dream-like state is much more important than you might think when it comes to brain recovery. Sleeping at night is the one time of day when your brain can dedicate itself solely to categorizing every thought, new skill, and novel piece of information it was fed over the last 15 hours or so. When this time isn't allotted to the brain, your ability to remember things can take a serious toll, especially in the long-term.
“Sleep offers our brains the chance to actually do something with material that we obtain during the day — while we rest, our minds synthesize everything so that the memories are more useful and accessible to us in the future," Kelsey Down, sleep writer for Sleep Train, tells Elite Daily. "Without that valuable process, we lose our ability to retain information over a longer period of time."
2. Sluggish Brain Activity Will Make You Feel Foggy
Some animals — like dolphins, and certain species of birds — don't need to turn in for the night because they have what is referred to as a unihemispheric slow-wave sleep. Put simply, this means the brain splits in two so that one part sleeps, while the other stays awake to knock things off their to-do list. Humans have similar capabilities, but it's nothing to brag about.
In a 2017 sleep deprivation study performed by researchers at the University of California, it was found that lack of sleep affects certain areas of the brain differently from others. Live Science reports that, in the study, parts of the brain that "experienced sluggish brain cell activity also exhibited brain activity normally seen when a person is asleep." In other words, your brain is foggy AF, because some parts are in sleep mode. Chances are, you're really not all there, so when you're trying to read a chain of emails, or even trying to decide what to have for lunch, everything is harder to make sense of.
3. Your Vision Becomes Foggy, Too
Psh, and you thought your mental perception was foggy. Whether you're choosing to stay up all night working on a project, or you're simply having trouble falling asleep, your visual perception is going to be just as muffled as your reading comprehension.
During a study performed by UCLA, 12 people going in for surgery for epilepsy were tracked via electrodes implanted in their brains. When the patients were asked questions about a variety of images they were shown after pulling an all-nighter before their procedure, the subjects' brains were unable to answer quickly, presumably due to lack of sleep.
4. Your Brain Can't Create New, Short-Term Memories
Think back to when our cell phones weren't so "smart" and could only hold up to 50 text messages at a time. Your brain's attempt at functioning on a serious lack of sleep is basically the equivalent to your phone trying to operate properly with a full inbox slowing it down.
Matthew Walker, a professor of neuroscience and psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, told Business Insider that when you sleep less, your brain becomes unable to make and store new memories, leading you to feel as if you're losing, rather than gaining, information. So, even if you just had a conversation with your boss about a project, or you and your SO chatted about what to have for dinner, there's a good chance your brain skipped over the info, and you'll be left in the dark when it comes time to reiterate the details.
5. You Might Increase Your Risk Of Dementia
As someone who has witnessed multiple loved ones suffer from dementia and Alzheimer's disease, this one really hits close to home.
According to Walker, when someone isn't getting enough sleep, their brain is at a higher risk of developing a toxic protein called beta-amyloid. This protein has been scientifically linked to Alzheimer's, and the less time you give your body to rest, the more that protein will build up, and therefore increase your risk of developing the disease later in life.
6. Your Brain May Literally Start To Eat Itself
This little diddy is about to blow your mind (and possibly creep you out a bit).
You know how your brain goes through a sort of spring cleaning every night where, as you sleep, it wipes out all the toxic waste it collected during your neural activity throughout the day? Well, according to research, the same thing happens when you're overtired, too.
Here's the thing: Your brain is constantly hitting refresh on its neurons, and certain brain cells are responsible for eliminating the old, worn out models. They do this through a process called "phagocytosis," which literally translates to "devour" in Greek, so there's that eerie fact.
Neuroscientist and team lead Michele Bellesi from the Marche Polytechnic University in Italy told ScienceAlert that through their research, it was proven that structures of neurons were actually being eaten by cells as a result of lack of sleep. So, essentially, your brain takes a bite out of itself as a midnight snack. Yum...?