This Is Your Brain on a Bad Night's Sleep

Sleepy brains do not make the best decisions. Here's how sleep affects your brain function.


Ever wonder what your brain is doing while you sleep? Your body may be close to motionless, but your brain is anything but. It’s very active during sleep.

Research shows that your brain uses sleep as a time to strengthen existing neural pathways between cells, as well as build new ones. These new pathways in the brain help with concentration and reaction time. Strong neural pathways allow you to act and react with less effort, helping you perform mental math in a cinch (what should I tip the sushi delivery guy?) or catch your phone before it hits the hard cement.

According to newer scientific research, your brain may also cleanse itself while you sleep, which helps your ability to learn and remember. The brain essentially clears out toxic molecules associated with brain degeneration, which may help stave off neurological conditions like Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease. On the other hand, chronic sleep deprivation could increase the risk of developing these diseases. 

When you’re sleep deprived, your brain slows down your thinking process, leading to confusion and a higher possibility of engaging in risky behavior. Think about the times you snap at your spouse for no reason or get prickly at the end of a too-long work conference call: These tend to happen when you’re frustrated, exhausted, and “just can’t think anymore.” That’s why sleep can be a great remedy for stress

Sleepy brains simply do not make the best decisions. This also extends to driving. Researchers tested people and determined that sleep-deprived drivers functioned as poorly behind the wheel as drunk drivers. Both alcohol and lack of sleep slow down reaction times.

Sleep also has a crucial effect on your mood. Obviously, sleep deprivation can make you cranky, but studies also show that people who consistently don’t get enough sleep have a greater risk of depression. Similarly, a restful night can help reduce depressive symptoms. (This is tricky, however, since depression can create insomnia for many patients.)

So, what can you do to feel and perform at your best and help your brain get the slumber it needs to succeed?

The National Sleep Foundation recommends these three tips. They may sound cliche, but that’s because they work. First, create good sleep habits. For example, be cautious about what you eat before bedtime, and make sure your bedroom is conducive for restful sleep. Second, get the recommended amount of sleep based on your age. Third, if you think you may be suffering from a sleep disorder that is affecting your ability to recharge at night, talk to your doctor. (Here are the six most common sleep disorders.)


Lauren Hale, PhD

This video features Lauren Hale, PhD. Dr. Hale is the editor in chief of the National Sleep Foundation's professional journal, Sleep Health, and an associate professor of preventive medicine in the program in public health at Stony Brook University.

Duration: 2:02. Last Updated On: Sept. 12, 2018, 10:44 a.m.
Reviewed by: Dr Helen Maliagros Scott, Preeti Parikh, MD . Review date: Sept. 12, 2018
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