The majority of animals require sleep in order to function properly. Sleeping is an evolutionary trait which has been passed down for millions of years, so there is no doubt that it serves some very important roles.
Of course, most of us are aware that this downtime is required for the body to repair itself and to expel any toxins that might be present. It is nonetheless a bit ironic that scientists are still not entirely certain why sleeping is such an essential behaviour.
This leads us to a few important questions. What impacts does sleeping have upon brain function? What about those who have been diagnosed with sleep-related disorders such as obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA)?
Let us take a closer look at how resting during the overnight hours directly impacts brain function in order to appreciate the big picture.
Taking Care of Brain-Related Waste
Much like organs such as the kidneys and the liver, a certain amount of toxins build up within the brain throughout the day. When left to accumulate for long periods of time, they can begin to impact thought processes and our emotions.
This is why the brain has been designed with what is known as a “glymphatic” system, a means by which these toxins can be removed during the overnight hours. Those who are incapable of sleeping soundly are at a higher risk of feeling the effects of such toxins.
An Increased Flow of Cerebro-Spinal Fluid
A substance known as cerebro-spinal fluid (CSF) helps to protect the brain and cushion it from shock. Scientists have also recently found that it plays a role in helping the brain to extricate any toxins that may be present.
A study carried out with mice illustrated that levels of CSF increased during the overnight hours. It is thought that this helps to brain to deal with any harmful chemicals that have previously accumulated.
Increased Brain Activity in Specific Areas
All of us dream while asleep. Scientists use machines to measure our brain waves during certain stages such as REM sleeping. However, other portions of the brain are equally affected. Many of these are associated with processing certain emotions such a stress, fear and anxiety. Some examples include:
- The amygdala
- The striatum
- The hippocampus
- The medial prefrontal cortex
- The insula
It is therefore becoming clear to see why those suffering from specific conditions such as sleep apnoea will often report feelings of stress, anger and depression.
If certain areas of the brain are not properly maintained during the overnight hours, they will be less effective when dealing with emotions and their associated responses. In other words, there are very real reasons why feeling “grumpy” after a broken night of sleep is much more than a simple sensation.
Sleeping Impacts Countless Cognitive Activities
Have you ever performed poorly on a test immediately following and evening associated with tossing and turning in your bed? If so, you are well aware of how frustrating such a situation can be. This is due in no small part to the fact that sleeping helps the brain to regulate a host of unique cognitive functions. A handful of the most relevant include:
- Skills needed to solve problems.
- Decision-making capabilities.
- Learning new tasks.
- Memorising a set of steps.
- Focusing and concentration.
Those who have difficulty sleeping due to illnesses such as obstructive sleep apnoea are therefore much more likely to perform poorly on tasks related to cognition. Let’s also mention that such observations can have potentially serious real-world consequences. Slower reaction times when operating a vehicle or a lack of focus when manipulating heavy machinery can lead to truly dangerous situations.
Are There Any Potential Long-Term Implications for the Medical Community?
It is interesting to note that scientists are only beginning to understand how the brain removes toxins during the overnight hours. While this is obviously important in terms of day-to-day living, what about long-term benefits?
Certain diseases such as Alzheimer’s have been linked to specific chemicals that increase within the over time. Might the glymphatic system of the brain be able to prevent such a scenario with medical intervention? The same holds true in relation to similar illnesses such as Parkinson’s. Although the verdict is still out, many interesting theories already exist.
How Much Rest Does the Average Individual Require?
This is a slightly loaded question, as the answer will depend upon a host of factors such as age and your activity levels. Here are some general guidelines which are accepted by the majority of the medical community:
- 6 and 13 years: Between 9 and 11 hours.
- 18 to 64 years: Between 7 and 9 hours.
- 65+ years: Between 7 and 8 hours.
We can now see why it is a good idea to consult with a specialist if you suspect that you are not sleeping as much as you should.
The Serious Implications of Too Little Sleep
We have already seen that sleeping positively impacts numerous portions of the brain. However, it also provides a host of physical benefits. A handful include a strong immune system, lower blood pressure, faster recovery times after an intense exercise session, and reduced chances of developing chronic conditions such as diabetes.
Thus, anyone who might be suffering from conditions such as sleep apnoea should make it a point to see a specialist. There are countless treatment options available including the overnight use of a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine. Not only will you be able to obtain a sound night of rest, but you can remain confident in the knowledge that your brain is performing at peak levels.
Sleeping is one of the most important human instincts and although we may live within a hectic world, there is simply no substitute for obtaining the rest that you deserve.
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