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What Happens To Your Brain While You Sleep?

By Sara Novak

Key Takeaways:

  • Why getting enough sleep is important for people of all ages
  • What happens in your body when you do not get enough sleep
  • Tips to sleep better
  • What happens in your brain during sleep

Table Of Contents:

We know that we need it and that there is a good chance we are not getting enough. But why is sleep so important? What is going on in our brains when we do not get enough sleep? Does your brain really do its spring cleaning at night? And how much sleep do you need to ensure that your brain is squeaky clean every night of the week? Let’s take a closer look at sleep and why it is such an important aspect of optimal health. 

What Happens when you don't get enough sleep?

What Happens When You Don’t Get Enough Sleep?:

Nothing works properly if you do not get enough sleep. You are cranky, thirsty, unfocused, and generally functioning at about half what you should be. Insomnia and poor sleep quality has been linked to a host of health problems. It seems that sleep is one of the most important aspects of overall good health. A review published in the journal Chest found that insomniacs had a higher risk of cardiovascular disease. The study authors write “there is emerging data linking disturbed sleep (including insomnia and short sleep duration) with intermediate mechanisms for heart disease, such as elevations in pro-inflammatory biomarkers.” Other research published in the journal Current Diabetes Report found that there was a higher instance of sleep disorders in those with diabetes. 

Obesity has also been linked to insomnia. According to Harvard Health, “several studies show that sleep deprivation (i.e., regularly less than 7 hours of sleep a night) is a risk factor for obesity.” This is related to a hormone imbalance that occurs when we do not get enough sleep that causes us to not feel satiated when we eat and to crave foods that are high in carbohydrates and high in sugar. 

How much Sleep do you need?

How Much Sleep Do You Need?:

The amount of sleep that you need really depends on your age. But it is important to do your best to get your fill. Newborns can sleep a whopping 17 hours a day, while infants sleep between 12 and 15 hours. School age kids need 9-11 hours and adolescents need 8-10. Us adults, well we need 7-9 hours per night, although this may not always be realistic, but it is important to achieve optimal health. 

Mental Health And Sleep:

Our mental health is almost immediately impacted when we do not get enough sleep. Insomniacs are more likely to have anxiety and depression. A study in the journal Depression and Anxiety found that “there is evidence that insomnia-specific interventions, such as cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia, may lead to improvements in depression.” Another study published in the journal Sleep Medicine Clinics found that “recent research has expanded on previous research, which established that sleep problems are an important predictor of depression and that sleep problems are associated with more severe depression, more suicide, and worse outcomes for the treatment of depression.”

Insomnia and lack of sleep has also been linked to anxiety. A study published in the journal Clinical Psychology Review found that robust evidence has linked sleep problems in adolescence to an increased risk of anxiety.

Why are you having trouble sleeping

Why You Are Having Trouble Sleeping?:

Nearly a third of the population in the United States has trouble sleeping from time to time and it is largely due to the fact that we live our lives in ways that make getting and staying asleep each night more difficult. We work too much. We are constantly on our screens, and stressed, and we do not exercise enough. Medications and excessive caffeine can also make it hard to sleep. 

Need some extra help getting to sleep at night? Check out our article, "10 Natural Sleep Aids That Work", or our own research-backed sleep supplement zuSleep

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Tips for Sleeping Well

Tips For Getting To Sleep At Night:

If you want to have less trouble getting to sleep at night, you need better sleep hygiene. That means setting yourself up at night so that sleep comes a little easier.

  1. Exercise -

    Exercise has been linked to improved sleep quality and lower instances of insomia. A study published in the Journal of Sleep Research found that “high levels of activity and exercise training have been associated with improvements in sleep quality.” A study published in the journal Sleep Medicine found that “aerobic physical activity with sleep hygiene education is an effective treatment approach to improve sleep quality, mood and quality of life in older adults with chronic insomnia.”
  2. Meditation -

    Meditating in the evening before bed has also been linked to better sleep quality. It does not have to be for an extended period of time either. Just a few minutes a day done regularly can go a long way in slowing down the central nervous system. A study published in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research found that “mindfulness meditation” may mildly improve some sleep parameters in patients with insomnia. It can serve as an auxiliary treatment to medication for sleep complaints.” Another study published in the journal Current Opinion in Pulmonary Medicine found that “increasing evidence shows that mindfulness meditation can be successfully used for the treatment of insomnia with good patient acceptance and durable results.”
  3. Diet -

    Certain foods have been shown to help you sleep. Some of these foods include turkey, chamomile tea, passionflower tea, kiwi, and fatty fish. You will want to avoid foods that may make sleep harder to come by, including foods with added sugars, overly processed foods, heavy foods, and generally eating too late at night. 
  4. Yoga -

    Doing a slow yoga and stretching session before bed has been shown to help us get to sleep at night. A review published in the journal BMC Psychiatry found that “a yoga intervention in women can be beneficial when compared to non-active control conditions in terms of managing sleep problems.”
  5. Screen time -

    Avoid watching television shows that are too emotional at night and avoid screen time in general too close to bed. Even reading books that could be upsetting might keep you from being able to fall asleep at night. Try to wind down before bed. That means stop working. Take a warm bath. Get in comfy clothing. Spray your pillow with lavender essential oil. 
  6. Get sleepy -

    Do not get into bed until you are actually tired. You want to associate your bed with sleep and nothing else. 

For more information on how to get a better night sleep check out our article: "The Last Guide You'll Ever Need For Sleep (How To Get A Perfect Night Of Sleep)".

What happens to Your Brain while you sleep

What Happens To Your Brain When You Sleep:

Some aspects of sleep are still unknown but there is a lot that we do know. Here are a few things the brain does while we are sleeping.

  1. Waste Removal -

    The brain gets rid of waste and replaces it with new information. For example, that tree you noticed sticking out in the street as you were driving by yesterday may be forgotten tomorrow. If your brain does not deem it necessary to keep, the thought may be replaced while you sleep with new information. 
  2. House Cleaning - 

    While you sleep, your brain cleans amyloid proteins. This is the plaque on the brain that has been shown to cause Alzheimer’s disease later in life. Research published in the journal Lancet Neurology has shown that those who have trouble sleeping have an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease. The study authors write that “accumulating evidence shows that sleep disturbance contributes to cognitive decline and might also increase the risk of Alzheimer's disease dementia by increasing β-amyloid burden.”
  3. Fixing And Repairing -

    Your brain cleans and repairs cells. When you sleep, your brain does the majority of its repair work all the way down to the cellular level. Part of this process includes working on the entire body including muscle repair, protein synthesis, hormone balancing, and tissue growth. 
  4. Building Long-Term Memories - 

    While you sleep, your brain converts short term memories to long-term memories while, at the same time, getting rid of the memories that you longer need to make room for what you do. A study published in the journal Psychological Reviews has shown how important sleep is to memory systems. The authors write “to form and retrieve memories is a fundamental ability of any living organism, enabling it to adapt its behavior to the demands of an ever-changing environment, and allowing it to appropriately select and improve the behaviors of a given repertoire.”
  5. Promoting Better Mental health -

    At night, there is also increasing activity in parts of the brain that are important to mental health. That is why those that do not get enough sleep seem to experience increased instances of anxiety and depression. The prefrontal cortex, the amygdala, insula, and hippocampus are all very active while you sleep. A study published in the journal BMC Mental Health found that “sleep and mental health go hand-in-hand, with many, if not all, mental health problems being associated with problems sleeping. Although sleep has been traditionally conceptualized as a secondary consequence of mental health problems, contemporary views prescribe a more influential, causal role of sleep in the formation and maintenance of mental health problems.”
  6. Clearing The fog -

    According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, “a healthy amount of sleep is vital for “brain plasticity,” or the brain’s ability to adapt to input. If we sleep too little, we become unable to process what we’ve learned during the day and we have more trouble remembering it in the future.”

If you're interested in learning more about how to improve and optimize your sleep, make sure to check out our UmzuFit Sleep Routine!

Umzu Fit Sleep Routine