- Sleep deprivation can trigger abnormal action of astrocytes, cells involved in brain cleansing and regeneration
- When astrocytes are functioning abnormally, they can eat and destroy healthy brain synapses, increasing your risk of Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases
- A consistent sleep schedule is important for keeping your brain healthy and avoiding other chronic health problems
- The exact amount of sleep you need depends on your age, overall health and activity levels, but for adults, seven to nine hours is a good general rule
You’re probably already aware that a good sleep schedule is a vital component to a healthy lifestyle, but did you know that when you don’t get enough sleep, your brain actually starts to eat itself?
I don’t mean that in the literal sense of the word, but research from the Marche Polytechnic University in Italy shows that astrocytes, a type of glial cell in the brain that normally gets rid of unnecessary nerve connections start to break down healthy nerve synapses in response to chronic sleep deprivation.1
In the study, mice were divided into four groups: well-rested (six to eight hours of sleep); spontaneously awake (periodically woken up); sleep-deprived (kept awake for an additional eight hours); and chronically sleep-deprived (kept awake for five days straight).
The researchers then looked at astrocyte activity in each of the four groups. In the well-rested mice, 5.7% of brain synapses had astrocyte activity. That number jumped slightly to 7.3% in the spontaneously awake mice. But in the mice that were sleep-deprived and chronically sleep-deprived, those numbers jumped again to 8.4% and 13.5%, respectively.
How the Brain Normally Functions
To understand what this increased astrocyte activity means, you must first understand how the brain normally functions. Your body and your brain constantly go through cellular cleansing processes. In the brain there are two types of glial cells that are responsible for clearing out old or damaged cells and synapses.
Microglial cells initiate a process called phagocytosis to remove debris, pathogens and dead cells from the brain.2 Astrocytes are supporting cells that provide structural support, insulate surfaces and protect the brain during inflammation and injury.3 These are complementary roles that help repair and restore the brain while you sleep and get you ready for a new day. Normally, that’s a good thing.
But when you don’t get enough sleep, astrocyte activity increases and the cells actually start to exhibit behavior similar to the microglial cells, eating waste and engaging in excessive cleansing — a physiological process called astrocytic phagocytosis.4
When this happens, instead of targeting only dead or damaged cells, the astrocytes start to eat away and destroy healthy synapses too. Over time, this can lead to chronic brain diseases like Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of neurodegeneration, like Parkinson’s disease.
Other Health Problems Associated With Sleep Deprivation
Although it’s a big problem, increased astrocyte activity and destroyed brain synapses aren’t the only problems associated with chronic sleep deprivation. If you’re not getting enough good quality sleep, it can also lead to several acute and chronic symptoms and health conditions, including:
How Much Sleep Do You Need?
It’s important to make sure you’re getting enough sleep to avoid damage to the brain and chronic health problems. But how much is enough? A general rule of thumb is to get eight hours of sleep, but the exact amount that’s right for you depends on your age, your overall health and your daily activities.
The National Sleep Foundation breaks recommendations down by age to make sure you’re getting enough sleep:7
Keep in mind that these are general guidelines and getting an hour more or an hour less may be appropriate, depending on your lifestyle, health circumstances and how you feel. If you’re productive, energetic, happy and healthy on seven hours of sleep, there’s no need to bump that up to eight based solely on a chart.
Tips on Getting a Good Night’s Sleep
It’s important to note that getting a good night’s sleep means quickly falling asleep, reaching a deep, restorative sleep and staying asleep. Going to bed at 10 p.m. and then tossing and turning all night until 6 a.m. doesn’t count as a good eight hours of sleep.
If you’re having trouble getting a good night’s sleep, there are a number of things you can do to improve your sleep hygiene. Just like eating a good diet, it’s important to prioritize these sleep tips so you can achieve optimal rest. If you practice all of these things regularly, you’ll be well on your way to a good night’s sleep and making sure your brain stays healthy:
Author: Dr. Joseph Mercola
Source: Mercola: Your Brain Starts Eating Itself After Being Starved for Sleep