lack of sleep killing brain cells

Is Lack of Sleep Killing Your Brain Cells?

Knock knock
Who’s there?
I don’t get it.
Sigh, I don’t get it either. 

If the bad joke didn’t catch your attention, maybe this will. A study in the Journal of Neuroscience says that lack of sleep is killing your brain cells. The research conducted on mice shows that lack of sleep can kill 25-30% of locus ceruleus neurons (LCns). Scientists believe the effects of lack of sleep or staying up to sacrifice sleep may be similar for humans. 

lack of sleep
Source: Giphy

How does lack of sleep kill my brain cells?

When we catch our 8-hour sleep, our body gets ample time to recover from the wear and tear throughout the day. Our nerves become calmer and stress levels go down. But when we end up burning the midnight oil, our brain goes into fight or flight mode. 

Once in fight or flight mode, the brain activates ‘wake-active’ neurons called LCns and works harder to keep us up. LC neurons help us pay attention and stay alert. When we keep ourselves awake at night, these neurons are fired at higher rates than during the day. Simply put, the act of keeping you from shutting your eyes at night is a stressor for LC neurons. On top of that, when we end up working or bingeing Netflix, we put more stress on the brain when all it needs is a good night’s sleep. 

To test the effect of staying up on the brain, researchers at UPenn studied the brain activity in 3 groups of mice. The first group was made to sleep at the regular time. The second group was made to stay up for 3 hours more, and the third group for 8. Scientists used stimuli to keep the mice awake. They observed that mice in groups 1 and 2 produced a protein called SirT3 to protect the LC neurons. But the mice in group 3 did not.

SirT3 (Sirtuin 3) is a protein that the body releases when we delay our bedtime. The function is to protect our LC neurons from injury. When sleep is delayed for a brief period, the level of antioxidants in LC neurons and SirT3 protein increase. This protects our brain cells.

But when we stay up for longer, the protein is not produced. This makes our brain cells (LC neurons) undergo oxidative stress. Oxidative stress is a state of imbalance where the absence of antioxidants harms the brain cells. This is what caused the loss of 25-30% of brain cells for mice in group 3. These brain cells are responsible for memory and mood regulation. This research challenged the notion that damages due to lack of sleep are temporary.

To add to this, another UCLA-led study shows how our brains get slower when we stay up longer than we need to. This especially affects how we perceive and understand visual input. For example, a sleepy driver takes a while to understand that he needs to stop when he sees a person in front of him.

What more can lack of sleep do to my body?

For every extra hour we stay up, we end up accumulating something called sleep debt. Sleep debt is the difference between the amount of sleep you should ideally get and the amount you end up getting. Sleep researchers believe it may take you an average of 4-9 days to completely recover from one hour of sleep debt.

While it’s normal to wake up groggy after not having slept well, sleep debt is more than that. Sleep debt ends up giving you brain fog, and slowing your metabolism. Slow metabolism exposes you to lifestyle conditions such as obesity, hypertension, and diabetes. Lack of sleep also impacts your mental health. Psychologists think skipping sleep can make you moody and worsen your social relationships. It also leads to conditions like depression, and anxiety, and loss of productivity at work.

What about night-shift workers?

In a country that’s already the second most sleep-deprived in the world, a huge chunk of our population works at night. Even for those who don’t, pulling all-nighters for work has become as synonymous to our lives as breathing. But a recent study by Washington State University Health Sciences says night-shift workers may be at a higher risk of cancer.

Night shifts disrupt the circadian rhythm that our body follows. The circadian rhythm is our body’s internal clock. It is the 24-hour day and night cycle that aids hormone production in the body. When we work against it, our metabolism slows down which makes our immune system weaker. Not only this, it also causes irreversible DNA damage. This DNA damage may put night-shift workers at a higher risk of cancer.

If all this didn’t convince you to sleep earlier, might we mention that lack of sleep causes your skin to age faster? When you deprive yourself of sleep, your skin starts showing signs of intrinsic skin aging like fine lines, blemishes, pigmentation, and reduced elasticity. Chronic late sleepers or short sleepers end up having much slower recovery rates too. 

lack of sleep

Sleep is the beautiful refuge we all must seek for the sake of our health. It’s not overrated or for the weak. (maybe we can add sleep is for the weak meme) 

If anything, it makes you stronger. When you catch an uninterrupted 8-hour sleep, you give your body time to get healthier. So maybe this time when you go to bed, try to not log in to Netflix?

From binge-watching to binge-eating, we do a bunch of stuff that messes up our system. That’s why it’s important to see how our bodies are doing every once in a while. Find out what yours is trying to tell you by signing up and taking our ₹1 full-body health checkup here.

P.S: We’ll also give you a health score you can flaunt.