If you have followed my work, then you likely know that I recommend three simple strategies to achieve optimal brain health.
- Develop brain envy (you have to really care about it)
- Engage in regular brain-healthy habits
- Avoid anything that hurts your brain
But did you know that one of the fastest ways to hurt your brain is to get less than seven or eight hours of sleep at night?
That’s right! In fact, chronic insomnia triples your risk of death from all causes and is related with cognitive decline.
We are in the midst of an insomnia epidemic. According to the National Institutes of Health, 30% of the population has chronic sleep problems and 10% are affected by symptoms of sleep deprivation during the day. The prescriptions for sleep medications, such as Ambien and Lunesta, have skyrocketed in the past decade.
In 1900 Americans, on average, got 9 hours of sleep a night. In 2008, we got only an average 6 hours of sleep at night. Our brains were not designed to have a 33% decrease in sleep in such a short period of time.
Getting less than 6 hours of sleep has been associated with lower overall brain activity, which affects mood, focus, productivity, weight, health, physical safety, and memory for days after.
Lack of sleep lowers brain activity in the temporal lobes, which are involved in learning, memory, and mood stability. This makes it harder to pay attention, solve problems, and remember important information, and it makes you more likely to make mistakes. Sleep-deprived people are definitely not smarter.
They are not happier either. People who are tired from lack of sleep tend to feel irritable and cranky. In one study, 44 percent of American workers admitted that when they are sleep deprived, they are more likely to be in an unpleasant or unfriendly mood.
Teenagers who average an hour less sleep than their peers have a higher incidence of depression and suicide. When you sleep less, you eat more and are more likely to be obese. The negative effects of sleep deprivation are so great that people who are drunk outperform those lacking sleep.
Fascinating new research has shown that the brain actually cleans or washes itself only during sleep. The brain has a specialized fluid system that helps to rid it of toxins that build up during the day, including beta-amyloid plaques thought to be involved in Alzheimer’s disease. During the day the brain is so metabolically active managing our lives that this cleaning system is inactive. It only turns on when we’re sleeping.
Without healthy sleep, this waste clearance system doesn’t have enough time to operate, thus allowing toxins to build up over time, which can cause cognitive and emotional problems. Think of sleep deprivation’s effect on your brain as what your home or office might look like if no one bothered to take out the trash for a month.
Make sleep a priority and strive to get seven to eight hours a night.