On Friday, April 29, 2011, USA Today’s article Tired Brains May Enter Sleep Mode While Awake stated that researchers know that sleep deprivation impairs the ability of people and animals to function. Now new research about sleep deprivation has found that the brains of rats kept awake past their bedtime began turning certain cells off while they were still awake. Certain brain cells known as neurons that get used during the day are the ones that appear to go off-line. It is likely that sleep-deprived human brains react in the same way. “Long before we show signs of tiredness, such as yawns and trouble focusing, it is probably happening,” stated a professor of psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Chiara Cirelli.
Here at A Sleep Easy we know that sleep is crucial to mental and physical health for humans and animals alike. The neurons are brain cells that transfer information by way of electrical impulses and when we sleep, slow-wave activity switches them off. The researchers kept rats up for hours and measured their brain waves using an EEG, or electroencephalogram, and found even though the rats were awake their neurons were turning themselves off in a random pattern. The shutdown of the neurons, researchers believed, is why the rats performed less well on a task of finding a sugar pellet. The shutdown of neurons is an important function especially when we are asleep, because it makes the sleeper unable to move while dreaming, causing temporary paralysis of the limb muscles. If the brain didn’t turn off these neurons, people would begin to physically “act out” their dreams — a rare, dangerous problem called REM sleep behavior disorder.
Cirelli continued to state that there is no reason to think this doesn’t happen in the human brain. Her research group is beginning to do similar studies with people getting ready for brain surgery and having their neural pathways mapped. Cillelli also thinks that the neurons we use during the day when awake are the ones that need to go to sleep when we are tired. What she is suggesting is, that when we wake up in the morning approximately 90% of our brain cells are awake, but as the day progresses your cells start to drift off into sleep, which explains why we perform less efficiently the longer we stay awake.
The research could mean that those who get less than seven hours of sleep each night are losing a portion of their brain function even though they are awake. The bottom line: sleep is very important and should be taken seriously. Even before you get tired you may show signs of impairment and you need to respect your need for sleep.
How much sleep should you be getting to prevent sleep deprivation, well it depends. You can identify how much sleep you need by making a few observations like; do you get tired during the day and do you decline social functions to catch up on some sleep. Many factors impact an individual’s amount of needed sleep, including their general health and their age. Your amount of sleep varies as you age and with changes in physical states such as pregnancy or menopause.
If you are concerned about your sleep deprivation you may want to keep a record of your sleep habits. A sleep journal can keep track of when and how you are sleeping to pinpoint patterns or bad sleep habits and problems. Many sleep doctors can diagnosis a potential sleep disorder, like insomnia, when you provide them with a sleep journal. The following information should be recorded in your sleep journal:
- The time you went to bed and woke up
- Your total sleep hours
- The overall quality of your sleep, do you snore or stop breathing periodically during the night
- The times you were awake during the night and what you did (did you stay in bed, get up, get a glass of milk, meditate?)
- The amount of caffeine or alcohol you consumed and the times of consumption
- The types of food and drink and the times of consumption
- Your feelings (happiness, sadness, stress, anxiety)
- Drugs or medications taken and the amounts taken and times of consumption
Go over your sleep journal and see what changes you can make with your lifestyle habits to help alleviate your sleep deprivation. Make note if any changes affect your quality and quantity of sleep and if you feel more alert during the hours you are awake. If nothing helps, it may be time to see your physician or a sleep specialist so they can determine the cause and make recommendations or treatment to address your sleep deprivation. The content provided in New Research about Sleep Deprivation is for information purposes only, intended to raise the awareness of different solutions for your sleep problems and should not be considered medical advice. For medical diagnosis and treatment, please see your qualified health-care professional.