When I discovered this isn’t a tall tale but a very pure reality, I wondered: How? How does prolonged sleep deprivation kill you? And if you don’t actually die, what does prolonged lack of good sleep do to you? It’s used as a torture technique so obviously, it’s not good.
Besides giving my body (and my poor Mom) some much needed rest, sleep seemed like a useless waste of time to me as a kid. Then I got sick and sleep became one of my first signs something was very wrong. It felt like the 23 hour sleeping marathons were my tenuous lifeline to survival, although I had no idea why.
So how exactly is lack of sleep fatal and bad sleep poisonous?
THE BRAIN IS IT’S OWN MERRY MAID:
A study a few years ago, showed the brain is no different than a lot of the organs that clean out waste and debris from our bodies. As we fall asleep, the brain takes this much needed moment of peace and quiet – to clean house, to literally clean itself out. Sleep, as it turns out, is more crucial than most of us realized.
In a study of mice a few years ago, researchers found the cells in the brain shrink as we sleep. This shrinkage, creates room and this room allows the brain to be flooded with a dramatic amount of cerebral spinal fluid to wash all the nooks and crannies the brain is full of. When the mice woke up, the brain cells enlarged again and the flow of spinal fluid between the cells slowed to a trickle.
“It’s almost like opening and closing a faucet,” Nedergaard (head of this original study) says. “It’s that dramatic”.
But what happens if the cells shrink and the brain starts it’s rinse cycle and this “Spring cleaning” gets interrupted?
Neurotoxins (poisons that act on the nervous system) are the “trash” the brain is trying to get rid of every night in our sleep. But this cleaning cycle is specific and long and if you don’t get enough good sleep, a new study run by Dr. Maiken Nedergaard, co-director of the Center for Translational Neuromedicine at the University of Rochester, found these neurotoxins start to build up.
The process to remove the buildup of toxins in our brains while we sleep, takes six to eight hours… every night. Six to eight hours of solid, restful sleep is required to flush out the buildup of Neurotoxins in the brain.
“This flushing process is important because what’s getting washed away during sleep are waste proteins that are toxic to brain cells”, Nedergaard says.
Dr. Nedergaard calls this toxin flush, “the glymphatic system” – a process that cleans out the neurotoxins by opening up “hidden caves” in your brain and then using cerebrospinal fluid to push the toxins down through the spinal column. If you aren’t getting the adequate sleep needed for this flushing process to take place (6-8hrs of good sleep a night), toxins can begin to build up in the brain.
This got me wondering, what exactly are the symptoms of Neurotoxicity in the brain? It turns out, they are like a symptom checklist for every NeuroImmune illness out there:
- memory loss
- lack of concentration / can’t think clearly
- problems with sleep
- language difficulties
- depression / anxiety
- numbness of the hands and/or feet
- sound familiar??!
PULLING AN ALL-NIGHTER:
So why doesn’t the brain just clean house a little bit, all day long? Nedergaard thinks it’s because cleaning – takes a lot of energy. “It’s probably not possible for the brain to both clean itself and at the same time [be] aware of the surroundings and talk and move and so on,” she says.
A NEUROLOGICAL CATCH 22:
As the toxins build up, it begins to make it harder and harder for the glymphatic system to work properly to flush out the toxins. As the gymphatic system begins to fail, more toxins build up. Essentially poor sleep becomes it’s own Catch 22 taking the brain, memory and cognitive functioning down with it.
This strikes a chord with me. The longer I was sick, the worse my brain issues became, the worse my sleep became, the worse my pain became… and around we went. What was once spotty memory became truly terrifying holes in my memory, reading a book a week became being unable to read at all, struggling to find the right word became being close to mute, problems with jerky muscle control, became actual seizures. The longer I was sick the worse my cognitive issues became… as did my sleep. I never thought of them as connected until I read a high number of people with brain diseases, also have severe sleep disorders as well.
NEUROTOXIN BUILD UP LINKED TO BRAIN DISEASES LIKE ALZHEIMERS:
One of the neurotoxins that can build up is something called amyloid-beta. This part of the study struck me because it says amyloid-beta is found en mass in the brains of Alzheimers patients. I can’t count how many times I have had friends battling ME or Lyme Disease or a list of other illnesses, say their brain and memory have become so severely impaired, they feel like they have Alzheimers. They aren’t alone. At my sickest, I did official cognitive testing and my results were as poor as anyone battling a degenerative brain disease.
“The more beta-amyloid you have in certain parts of your brain, the less deep sleep you get and, consequently, the worse your memory. Additionally, the less deep sleep you have, the less effective you are at clearing out this bad protein.” – Matthew Walker, neuroscientist affiliated with the study
I don’t think sleep is the cause of ME or even the “solution” to curing it. But I do think the role of sleep in the function of the brain is a much larger piece of the puzzle than many of us realized, and this thought alone really makes me want to take a nap.