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In the midst of my crazy-busy schedule, having a mile-long list of things to do, I’ve often found myself saying these words: “If only I didn’t have to sleep, I could get so much more done!” I’ve actually said that—and I wasn’t joking either.

Recently, I experienced one of those off days in which I felt drowsy and a bit irritable. I had difficulty focusing and completing tasks, my thought processes and reaction time were slower than usual, and I experienced challenges with short-term memory—all of which can undoubtedly be attributed to sleep deprivation the night before. On such days, I am painfully reminded that skipping sleep doesn’t pay; in fact, it comes with a rather high price tag. And according to some researchers, the damage caused by sleep deprivation isn’t just for the short term. The effects can be lasting.

how sleep benefits your brain

So why is sleep so important, and what does it really do for us? Intuitively, we all know that a good night’s sleep is rejuvenating. When we wake up refreshed and abounding with energy, we feel as though we are on top of the world. Interestingly, a look at the science behind what happens when we sleep may help to explain why this is so.

Researchers have identified the space surrounding the brain cells as interstitial space. During sleep, the interstitial space increases, and the cerebrospinal fluid in the brain flushes out all the “gunk” that has accumulated while we are awake. These toxins, such as beta-amyloid, are associated with neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. Flushing out these toxins has a restorative function, a physiological process that occurs in what researchers call the glymphatic system. This is likely why we wake up feeling refreshed and able to think more clearly in the morning than the night before.

Sleep helps us not only feel better, but restful sleep actually helps us look better. We’ve all heard people say, “I need my beauty rest.” Well, this isn’t just an old cliché. During sleep, our brains release what is known as growth hormone, which is a vital component of collagen production. The growth hormone produced when we sleep helps with tissue repair and also contributes to healthier-looking hair, skin, and nails. This was demonstrated when a group of researchers from the University of Michigan studied adults with obstructive sleep apnea who had difficulties with sleeping. Following two months of treatment (which improved their sleep), the study subjects rated themselves as having fewer wrinkles and less redness, while others described them as being more youthful and attractive.

Creativity is another brain function that is enhanced by sleep. A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found those study participants who were well rested at night performed nearly 40 percent better at tasks requiring creativity than those who didn’t get a good night’s rest. The REM (rapid eye movement) stage of sleep is most important for boosting creativity levels.

Our emotions are also affected by the amount of sleep we get. Adequate sleep helps two portions of the brain—the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala—to maintain good communication. These areas of the brain, respectively, are associated with self-control and the brain’s emotional center. That’s why it’s so much easier to keep our cool when we’ve had a good night’s rest.

how lack of sleep affects your brain

Now that we’ve seen how beneficial sleep is for our brains, let’s look at what happens when we’re sleep-deprived. And it isn’t a pretty picture. Most likely, you’ve felt the effects of sleep deprivation at some point in your life. Through scientific studies, researchers have validated the physiological impact of sleep deprivation. These include hindered learning ability, impaired cognitive performance, and slowed reaction time, to name a few. Scientists also believe that sleep deprivation can ultimately lead to memory problems, cognitive decline, and neurodegenerative diseases. Through neuroimaging studies, scientists have begun to link poor sleep to a higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. And those nasty plaques that are removed during sleep (mentioned earlier in this article) are the culprits.

Sleep deprivation also affects our ability to multitask. Can you think of an activity that most of us do regularly that involves intense multitasking? (Hint: It involves your hands, feet, and vision and requires an awareness of what’s going on around you.) If you guessed driving, you’re absolutely right. When we are deprived of sleep, our ability to multitask is seriously impaired. No wonder people are more likely to have an automobile accident when they are sleepy!

Just as good sleep helps with creativity, the opposite is also true. Scientists have discovered that divergent thinking—the ability to think outside the box—is negatively impacted by a lack of sleep. One scientific study found that people who were deprived of sleep for 32 hours tested poorly on such creative tasks as fluency, flexibility, and originality.

Sleep deprivation not only affects our cognitive ability but also can impact our mental health. Researchers have discovered that people who get too much or too little sleep (less than six hours or more than nine hours of sleep per night) are at greater risk for depression. They’ve also found that the portion of the brain that governs the circadian rhythm is disrupted in people who are depressed. A study conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health compared 8,000 participants’ complaints about sleep problems with symptoms of depression. The results were striking: they found that the risk of major depression was 40 times higher among people with insomnia than people who sleep well.

how to get great sleep

We’ve only scratched the surface of learning how important sleep is for our brains, our capacity to function, and our mental health. Perhaps now you are wondering how you can ensure that you get the restorative sleep that is vital to your well-being.

The first question to consider is, How much sleep do I really need? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), adults who are 18 to 60 years old need seven or more hours of sleep a night. The exact number of hours needed varies slightly from person to person. Studies have found, however, that most problems arise when people get less than six hours or more than nine hours of nightly rest.

Here are some practical lifestyle habits you can implement to better ensure a good night’s rest:

Avoid sleep robbers. Be sure to avoid such sleep robbers as caffeine and alcohol. Scientists have found that caffeine (think tea, coffee, caffeinated soda, and chocolate) can cut melatonin production (a necessary component for restful sleep) in half for six hours. They have also discovered that alcohol interrupts the all-important deep sleep cycles by 41 percent—dispelling the myth that alcohol enhances one’s sleep.

Swap screens for books and baths. Another culprit that steals quality sleep is those little devices that have become an integral part of life: cell phones, tablets, TVs, and computers. Sleep experts advise that you avoid peering at electronic screens at least an hour before bedtime. Instead, read a relaxing book or take a warm bath.

Eat for better sleep. The timing and content of your meals also impact your sleep. Avoid eating anything at all for at least three hours before bedtime, and your last meal of the day should be a light one. Some people have found that cutting out the last meal of the day is beneficial for quality sleep. Also, make sure that your diet contains foods rich in vitamin D and calcium, both of which aid in the production of melatonin—that includes foods such as oats, corn, rice, barley, tomatoes, and bananas.

Create a cozy environment. Sleeping in a dark, quiet room with adequate air circulation is important. Darkness helps your body to release melatonin. Also, it goes without saying, a comfortable bed is essential for good sleep. Another important factor is consistency. Going to bed and getting up at regular times helps your internal clock—and you—to function optimally.

Get tired. Regular vigorous exercise helps ensure restful sleep. Try to schedule exercise during the day, rather than right before bedtime, so you aren’t wide awake and energized when you’re trying to wind down. I sleep like a baby on the days I’m most active!

Quiet your stressful thoughts. Last but not least, if you have any stress in your life—and who doesn’t?—take some steps to minimize it. I’m sure that it comes as no surprise that scientists have found a strong connection between stress and fitful sleep. Therefore, it’s important to lay aside worries and stressful thoughts before bed as much as possible. Reading uplifting literature, listening to soothing music, and meditating on peaceful thoughts can be quite helpful. And many people—myself included—have found prayer to be of the utmost benefit, not just before bedtime but during waking hours as well.

Whatever time of day you happen to pick up this article and read it, I wish you a day of fulfilling, productive activity and a night of peacefulness and rest. Sweet dreams!

Pat Humphrey, MPH, MS, is a freelance writer and editor, health educator, and wellness coach with a passion for whole-person health. She writes from her country home in north-central Texas.

Sleep Is Your Superpower

by Pat Humphrey
From the January 2023 Signs