The Scary Thing That Happens To Your Brain When You Don’t Get Enough Sleep

It starts eating itself. Yes, really. Here's the science.

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Sleep deprivation is a serious public health issue.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that 50 to 70 million Americans have sleep or wakefulness disorders, and recent research indicates that long-term sleep issues can lead to serious health problems.

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But if you’re looking for another reason to refine your sleep schedule, we’ve got one—and it’s a bit disturbing. According to a new study, sleep deprivation can literally cause your brain to start eating itself.

Granted, that’s a pretty rough way of putting it, but it’s essentially true. Researcher Michele Bellesi and colleagues published their findings in the Journal of Neuroscience.

The study showed that extended periods of sleep deprivation activate microglia, a type of cell found in the brain and spine. These cells act as phagocytes, engulfing other cells and ingesting them.

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In a healthy body, phagocytes serve an important function; they eliminate dead or dying cells, along with bacteria and viruses, allowing the body to operate efficiently. But an overabundance of phagocytes isn’t a good thing, because it exposes tissues to potential damage.

So, does sleep deprivation prompt your brain to completely devour itself?

Not quite. The effect is certainly important and deserves scientific study, but it’s probably not something that most people need to worry about, provided that their periods of missed sleep are relatively few and far between.

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Many other stressors can cause the same type of issues with phagocytic activity, as the study notes in its conclusion. Still, given the prevalence of sleep issues in American adults, these findings seem especially troubling; people who regularly miss out on sleep may be exposing their brains to certain diseases.

The good news is that the phagocytic activity isn’t problematic in the short term. In fact, it’s likely a healthy reaction to short periods of sleeplessness, because the microglia allow the brain to treat the problems that are keeping it awake.

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The study stops short of explaining how the brain damage from sleep deprivation might manifest, but the takeaway is clear. You’re not at risk if you miss a few hours of sleep on occasion, but extended periods of sleep deprivation aren’t good for your brain.

That’s certainly not the only serious health issue associated with sleep deprivation.

In recent years, scientists have linked insomnia with fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome, and a host of other chronic conditions.

So, what’s the best way to treat sleep dysfunction? For otherwise healthy people, it’s as simple as refining bedtime habits. The CDC recommends going to bed at the same time every day, staying away from caffeine before bed, and avoiding large meals late at night.

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Recent research also indicates that smartphones and other LCD-equipped devices can make sleep more difficult. This is likely due to blue light waves, which stop the brain from sending out the chemical signals it uses to prompt sleep. In other words, parts of your brain might mistake the blue light for daylight.

While light filter applications can help to diminish this effect, the best tactic is to put down the phone completely.

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