How sleep deprivation is messing with your brain

A new group of studies points to sleep as the body’s natural way of helping the brain cleanse itself.

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Find out what a bad's night sleep is really doing to your system
Find out what a bad’s night sleep is really doing to your system (Photo by Getty Images).

Your brain is kind of like your kitchen. Over the course of a day it accumulates a great deal of waste. By 10 a.m., the counters are dotted with crumbs, the floors sticky with spilled juice, and the sink filled with dirty dishes.

After dinner, your kitchen gets a necessary once-over. The crumbs are palmed into the trash, spills are spritzed and wiped away and the dishes are rinsed and put in the dishwasher. One last sweep of the floor and the kitchen is neat and tidy, ready to for a new day and a whole new mess.

Our brains operate similarly, suggests an article in the New York Times. After a long day of thinking, worrying and feeling, our brains have generated a whack of chemical waste products — biological crumbs and spills, so to speak — that require clearing away. Recent studies on sleep, by the University of Rochester, have found that it is an integral part of the natural process that cleans our brains.

“As your body sleeps, your brain is quite actively playing the part of mental janitor: It’s clearing out all of the junk that has accumulated as a result of your daily thinking,” writes the TimesMaria Konnikova.

Sleep is such a significant factor in overall brain health that some experts believe a chronic lack of it may be connected to the development of diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s (though that’s on the extreme end of the sleep-deprivation scale). Occasional sleep loss, however, does have its drawbacks and is associated with impaired brain function. We’re less able to focus and think — less able to deal with life — when we are sleep deprived.

A good night’s sleep — between seven to nine hours — may not be easily achieved, but it’s entirely necessary. Like eating a healthy diet and staying active, sleep is one more way we preserve our health as we age.

So, if you’re given the choice between cleaning the kitchen and getting to bed an hour earlier, choose to hit the sack. The dirty dishes will be just fine. But you, you really need that internal scouring.

How much sleep you do get on a nightly basis? Tell us in the comments section below.