5 Thoughts on What Happens to Your Brain When Don’t Sleep Enough

There are any number of ways to keep your brain healthy, having to do with a healthy diet, movement and stress reduction. But one of the big brain savers is all about what you do at night, and by that we mean sleep. It is truly amazing, refreshing, restorative stuff and if you’re not getting enough or just not doing it very well, the consequences can be more serious than you might think. Sure, an under-slept brain won’t be able to perform particularly well on the team Zoom call or, for that matter, doing any kind of activity that rises above the routine, but that’s just the beginning of the problems.  

I get it. Thanks to the pandemic, sound sleep hasn’t always been easy to come by. But cutting sleep corners is a health non-starter with big consequences, which is why I urge you to get serious about cleaning up your sleep act before long-term problems start to creep in. Here’s some food for thought on why taking care of your brain with a good night’s sleep is essential to living a long and healthy life:

Your brain’s clean-up crew needs you to sleep.

Sleep is not a luxury. It is an absolutely essential act of daily health maintenance, and it's your biggest ally when it comes to keeping your brain sharp and youthful. So, next time you’re thinking of staying up late to binge just one more episode of The Last of Us, think again. Sleep looks to play a pivotal role in avoiding the mental decline that can start in middle age and accelerates from there – so, the less bingeing the better!

In the near term, cheating yourself out of sleep denies your brain that nightly whole-body refresh and reset time it needs to forge pathways between nerve cells, helping you retain information you’ve learned during the day. Trillions of nerve cells literally rewire themselves to map out what you’ve learned, making new connections and clearing out old or unused information routes (called synapses) to allow for more efficient brain function the next day. It’s how we find new solutions to old problems.

On a physical level and emotional level, being under-slept will also likely leave you feeling worn out, anxious or depressed – so why do that to yourself? Bottom line: your brain needs you to shut down, ideally on a regular and consistent schedule, 7 -8 hours a night on average – and not just when you can ‘fit it in.’  

An under-slept brain is strewn with cellular trash.

The picture gets worse when we consider chronic poor sleep. The reason being, when you sleep, your brain protects itself from toxic proteins, including the ones that form Alzheimer’s-causing plaque. It does this via its glymphatic system which flushes cerebrospinal fluid through the brain to remove proteins that accumulate between the cells, byproducts of neurological processes during the day. This “overnight cleanup” keeps the brain clear and healthy, but your brain-cleaning crew only works when you're asleep.

When you don’t give the cleaning crew the downtime they need to do their work, it’s like having a party one night and neglecting to clean up the mess the next day, and then having another party, letting the mess keep piling up. Research now links this buildup of cellular waste with the loss of brain function and an increased risk of developing the neurological diseases we fear most, like dementia and Alzheimer’s. Sleep well however, and it’s like putting money in your brain health bank.

Being under-slept is (in some ways) like having a drinking problem.

Not getting sufficient sleep also decreases your coordination and increases your risk for accidents and injury. Sleep deprivation’s effects on the brain can mirror some of the effects of drinking too much alcohol. The latest research shows that drivers who slept even one hour less than usual are at significantly higher risk for motor-vehicle crashes. What’s more, according to the National Sleep Foundation, highly sleep-deprived workers are 70 percent more likely to be involved in work-related accidents. And a lack of sleep is linked to a higher risk of injury in athletes, which may be why durable “ageless” athletes like Tom Brady and LeBron James are famous for their stringent sleep habits.

A well-rested brain will keep you well – all over.

In addition to keeping your brain fog-free, regular, sound sleep builds up greater mental and emotional resilience, with improved mood and ability to focus. You’ll look and feel better and, odds are, you’ll even live longer. Here are some of the ways that good sleep and well-rested brains work their health magic:  

1. The well-rested brain creates more brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a special protein that is a jack-of-all-trades when it comes to brain health. BDNF repairs brain cells and increases the growth of new brain cells; it improves learning and memory; it protects against Alzheimer’s disease; it works as a natural antidepressant, helping to reverse chronic anxiety and depression. It’s mighty good stuff. Cutting corners on sleep will cut the amount of BDNF your brain puts out – get good rest and plenty of it.

2. The sleep-supported brain ensures an energized body. When the power-plants in your brain cells, the mitochondria, are able to power down at night, they protect themselves from the damage that could interfere with their energy-production duties that we depend on to keep us moving during the day. At night, the neurons play an important role clearing out cellular waste so they can efficiently transmit messages throughout the body the next day.

3. A brain on the receiving end of sound sleep maintains the body’s healthy hormonal balance. When we get a good night’s sleep, our stress hormones drop which signals the pituitary gland to produce growth hormone which repairs and restores skin, muscle and bone. When our cortisol levels stay high at night, in other words, we toss and turn and get a crappy night’s sleep, the collagen in our skin can break down, making us look old before our time – we’re talking lined and saggy faces. But it goes deeper than that. High cortisol levels decrease the number of new brain cells that are created in your hippocampus, the brain’s learning and memory center. So not only does your skin get prematurely old, so does your brain!

4. When we’re in synch with our circadian rhythms and sleeping well, our brains produce healthy amounts of melatonin, the “sleep hormone,” which has been shown to help slow the multiplication of many types of cancer cell types, trigger cancer cell self-destruction (aka apoptosis), and deprive tumors of the blood supply they need to grow.

Be good to your brain, don’t batter it.

Protecting your brain and tending to its health is essential to a long and healthy lifespan. Pay it no mind and your brain may return the disrespect in any number of unhappy ways, now and down the road. If your habits are less than ideal, now’s the time to start practicing new and better ones. To get started, check out my favorite sleep-better-tonight tips, and consider investing in a sleep tracker to help keep you honest, and to help you figure out why you may not be  getting that good night’s sleep. You’ve only got one brain, so take care of it and use it well.

Longevity Reading