Cannibalism in the Brain:

A New Study Shows What Might Happen If You Don’t Get Enough Sleep

A study recently published in The Journal of Neuroscience suggests that a lack of sleep can do some serious damage to the brain.

According to the study conducted at the Marche Polytechnic University in Italy, a type of glial cell in the brain called an astrocyte (a star-shaped glial cell) may actually be destroying the synapses it was designed to protect when there’s a chronic lack of sleep.

Normally, these cells—along with another group of cells called microglial cells—eliminate old, worn-out cells through a process known as phagocytosis (which is Greek for “to devour”). Think of the astrocytes and microglial cells as the nightly cleanup crew; they remove the unwanted debris to make room for healthy, vital cells that will be used the next day.

However, when the brain is deprived of sleep and remains awake, the cleanup crew becomes the demolition crew, destroying parts of the synapses as well. This was discovered when the sleep-deprived mice in the aforementioned study had more astrocytes and microglial cells than their well-rested rodent counterparts, indicating the brain had actually begun to consume itself. This is not welcomed information for the 40 percent of adults in America who get an astonishing six hours of sleep or less a day.

What happens when this damage occurs from a chronic lack of sleep?

Though nothing has been confirmed as of yet, it is theorized that this kind of damage to the synapses can result in degenerative neurological conditions like Alzheimer’s disease or Parkinson’s disease.

What can I do to improve my sleeping habits and sleep longer/better?

There are a lot of ways to improve your sleep hygiene (sleep habits) to ensure your brain gets the sleep it needs, such as:

  • Avoiding naps if you have difficulty sleeping
  • Considering the use of items such as blackout curtains, earplugs (for those with snoring partners), white noise machines or anything else that may help to create optimal sleeping accommodations
  • Establishing a relaxing sleep ritual before bedtime that avoids bright lights and anything that might induce stress or anxiety (e.g., leaving the TV on for noise)
  • Exercising daily (but not at a time when you should be sleeping)
  • Sleeping on a comfortable and supportive mattress and pillow
  • Sticking to a strict sleeping schedule (even on the weekends!) to help your body clock stay on time

In short: Don’t let your brain get a taste for cannibalism. Make solid sleep a priority.

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