Sleep and the Brain

Cecille Picar

 

            Why is sleep important? What is it about sleep that is good for us and how does it enhance our brains and our bodies? What is so good about sleeping that we spend one third of our lives in this unconscious and seemingly unproductive state. During sleep we can neither nourish our bodies with food and water, we cannot work to gain knowledge by studying and experimenting and we cannot protect ourselves from outside dangers. But we need sleep. Our lives depend on sleep. Without sleep, our minds are impaired and we can't think straight. We begin to hallucinate, see things that aren't truly there and hear things when no sound is present. Without sleep, our brains can become so impaired that we can make fatal mistakes costing us our lives.

            Over the last century our understanding of the human brain has grown and our understanding of what sleep does for the brain has increased with it. Scientists now understand that a good nights sleep is essential for learning, memory, decision making and overall day to day activities. Without sleep, we can face some serious health risks like chronic migraines, hypertension, low brain functioning and many more.

            What does sleep do for us? Although there is still a lot of research to be done in terms of how sleep effects the brain and our daily lives, one thing is for sure: sleep deprivation is dangerous. It lowers our immune system's ability to fight infections, shortens our life spans and our nervous system becomes impaired due to loss of sleep. Too little sleep leaves us tired and incapable of using our full brain capacity to concentrate and take in new information. It also impairs our memory capabilities and physical performance. We become slower and less effective, not just in the mind but in body as well.

            During sleep, neurons that we have used during the day to handle life's many tasks shut down and repair themselves. Without sleep, we give our bodies no chance to shut down to heal itself and our brains take a hard hit. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NIH) Neurons become depleted in capabilities and become polluted with byproducts of normal cellular activities and begin to malfunction. The NIH also states that sleep gives our brain the chance to use important neuronal connections that might just deteriorate from lack of use.

            In children, deep sleep goes hand in hand with the release of growth hormones. The body's cells show and increased production and breakdown of proteins. Because sleep gives the brain time to repair neurons used throughout the day and helps produce needed proteins, activities in the brain such as emotional control, and decision making capabilities are reduced which suggests that deep sleep may help people maintain the best emotional and social functioning while awake.

            Sleep is essential for forming and consolidating knowledge and memories of the day that has passed and plays a central role in the creation, repair and formation of old and new neuronal connections and the destruction of old unnecessary ones. The Nedergaard lab published new information in the journal Science shedding light on the evolutionary importance of sleep. Sleep plays a crucial role in our brain's physiological maintenance. While we sleep, our brain plays the part of a “mental janitor”. It cleans out all the dirt and grime that has accumulated as a result of the day that has just passed.

            Even in the brain, dirty junk gets accumulated and needs to be cleaned out. Think of it like an exercise, we start of our exercised full of energy and ready to do energy but as time goes by we can't breathe, stamina runs low and our muscles begin to tire. Our brain is one of the biggest muscles we have. And the exercise we give it is in reading, learning and gaining knowledge. Without sleep, we keep running our brains tiring it out and giving it no time to rest, relax and clean itself out. An accumulation of toxic byproducts grows in your muscle cells and those toxic byproducts need to be cleared out. That is where sleep comes in. During sleep, those toxic byproducts are cleaned out giving us a fresh start to a new day and we are ready for new information to be learned and memories to be created.

            The brain needs sleep just like our external bodies do. Sleep gives us the time to heal, repair, and grow. We rest our bodies and minds during sleeping, shutting down unnecessary processes so that they can be restored for the next day. Sleep deprivation leads to health risks of not just the physiological kind but the mental kind as well. A good nights rest (7-8 hours for adults) is necessary for our minds to be able to keep working hard everyday. Even during sleep, our bodies are being productive, working to keep us healthy and happy.

Although there is more research to be done to increase our knowledge of what sleep can really do for us, the findings so far are pretty indicative of how important sleep really is. It's a necessary part of life and going without sleep proves to be a very maladaptive behavior.