My mother is a R.N. And when she was going through nursing school, she would often study for tests by explaining the things she was learning to us kids. One of her lessons that has always stuck with me is the meaning of phagocytosis.
It was a big word for a kid to learn, but she cleverly compared it to one of our favorite video games, Pacman. Mom explained that Pacman was the phagocyte going around gobbling up organic material—such as bacteria and cells—which were the pellets.
I’ve never forgotten that image. Which is why when the clunky title of a recent animal study caught my eye… and gave me the chills. Because it essentially warned that sleep deprivation could cause your body to start eating away at your brain, literally.
Sleep deprivation destroys healthy neurons
The cerebral cortex is the largest part of your brain. It plays a critical role in memory, cognition, perception, awareness, attention, thought, consciousness and language.
The Italian study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, found that when the body doesn’t get enough sleep it begins to gobble up healthy neurons in the cerebral cortex.1 In the process, called astrocytic phagocytosis, important synaptic connections can be destroyed.
The researchers warn that this damage could put folks at a higher risk for Alzheimer’s disease and other neurological disorders. And the damage may not be reversible, even if you catch up on the lost sleep.
In other words, burning the candle at both ends could be doing a lot more damage than simply making you feel a bit grumpy and out of sorts the next day. Sleep deprivation could be causing permanent brain damage.
Poor sleep could send “cleaning crew” into overdrive
For the experiment, the scientists had several groups of mice sleep for varying amounts of time. They then kept the mice awake for five days and monitored what went on in their brains.
That’s when they spotted the problem.
Think of your brain kind of like an office building. There’s a lot of activity during the day. And with all those folks hard at work a lot of trash is produced, from used coffee cups to no-longer-needed scraps of paper.
So at night after everyone has left for the day the cleaning crew comes in and scrubs away until everything is spic and span again.
Your brain is similar. When you enter deep, short-wave sleep a cleaning crew of astrocytes, or glial cells, rushes in and mops up all the gunk which built up during the day. They sweep away old worn out cells to make space for new ones.
But in the new mouse study, scientists say sleep deprivation caused this process to go awry. The astrocytes appeared to go into overdrive. They didn’t just clear away the old clutter they began eating away at more of the connections in the brain. And they ended up clearing away synapses they had no business touching.
Sleep deprivation linked to health problems
Now even if you’re a poor sleeper like me you aren’t going to stay awake for five days straight as the mice did. But that just means the effects might be more subtle, taking longer to show up. And by then it could be too late.
And, of course, neurological issues are far from the only ill effects that sleep deprivation can cause. Poor sleep affects your immune system, making you more vulnerable to colds, flus and infections.
Lack of sleep is linked to certain cancers and an elevated risk for heart disease. And skipping out on the zzzs can wreak havoc with everything from your memory to your sex life.
In other words, there are lots of great reasons to take sleep deprivation seriously and do something about it sooner rather than later. Start by transforming your bedroom into a comfortable sleep cave.
If outside light is problem, invest in some next blackout shades. Leave all electronic devices such as cell phones, tablets and laptops at the door. They emit sleep-disturbing blue light.
If possible, keep the room on the cooler side, which experts say is better for sleeping. Use it as an excuse to indulge in some brand new cozy bedding. And try spritzing your sheets with some sleep-friendly lavender spray or tucking a sachet of the relaxing scent under your pillow.
Support healthy sleep with melatonin
If you’re still struggling with insomnia, don’t rely on dangerous sleep drugs to get some shut eye. They come with a laundry list of frightening side effects, and in reality only provide most users with mere minutes of extra sleep.
Sleep drugs are like trying to use a hammer to correct a hangnail. You need something that’s gentle and yet still effective to get your circadian rhythms back on track. Healthier Talk contributor Dr. Allan Spreen recommends you consider trying melatonin instead.
As Dr. Spreen explains, melatonin plays a central role in when we fall asleep and when wake up; supporting the kind of quality deep sleep we need for good health. But as we age, our natural supply of melatonin starts to drop. And for some folks that can cause sleep troubles and sleep deprivation.
A melatonin supplement can help you gently fall asleep and wake up feeling refreshed and ready to tackle the day. But Dr. Spreen warns that absorption can be a problem with melatonin because the pills are destroyed in your gut so you don’t always get their full effect. He recommends you try a melatonin spray instead. Look for them online or in health food stores.
1. “Sleep Loss Promotes Astrocytic Phagocytosis and Microglial Activation in Mouse Cerebral Cortex,” Journal of Neuroscience 24 May 2017, 37 (21) 5263-5273
She is an advocate of self-education and is passionate about the power of group knowledge sharing, like the kind found right here on HealthierTalk.com. Alice loves to share her views on holistic and natural healing as well as her, sometimes contentious, thoughts on the profit-driven inner workings of traditional medicine.
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