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What happens in your mind when you are asleep?

Did you know that the human mind does not go to sleep ever?

When you are getting your 8 hours of shuteye at night, your mind is doing its housekeeping, flushing out the toxins built up during the day, moving memory from short-term storage to long-term storage, removing dead neuronal connections, and building new ones.

It is also doing problem-solving and innovating solutions that could be useful for you when you awake.

Provided you are giving it the rest it needs between 10 pm to 5 am

The function of sleep has baffled scientists for years, but in recent times neuroscience research is providing new clues about what it does for both the mind and body.

Sleep helps in reenergizing the body's cells, clearing waste from the brain, and supporting learning and memory storage. Sleep has an important role to play in regulating mood, appetite and libido.

Your brain is super active when you are asleep. But not in the ways that you are used to when you are awake. Though your conscious mind has gone to sleep, the subconscious and unconscious mind is at work.

Sleep allows your neurons, or nerve cells, to reorganize themselves to serve your best interest the next day.

During sleep, your brain’s glymphatic (waste clearance) system clears out toxins that build up during the day. it clears the waste from the central nervous system and removes toxic byproducts from your brain, so that your brain can work well when you wake up.

When we fall asleep, the brain does not merely go offline. Instead a series of highly orchestrated events takes place that ensures that we are able to sleep and stay asleep while the brain is working to renew us and prepare us for the next day, better prepared than we were, the previous day.

Sleep contributes to memory function by converting short-term memories into long-term memories, as well as by erasing, or forgetting, unneeded information that might otherwise clutter the nervous system.

The hippocampus is where we store our daily learnings and experiences. The cortex is where we store our long-term memories.

Every night during the first part of our sleep, electrical waves sweep across the hippocampus and moves the memories that need to be stored in long-term memory to the cortex, thus emptying that storage and allowing for fresh learning to take place the next day. When we deny ourselves this sleep, our short-term memory is still full up when you welcome the next new day preventing the absorption of new skills or memories. We risk overwriting of old experiences and memories or an inability to absorb new information.

Imagine your kitchen filled with dirty vessels after a day of cooking. This needs to be cleaned up if you need to cook again the next day. What would happen if you did not allow the time for cleaning up your kitchen? Would you be able to cook properly again the next day? What if it continues for several days?

That is what is happening to a human mind that is getting deprived of its natural sleep.

Sleep affects many aspects of our brain function, including the following:

  • memory

  • problem-solving skills

  • learning

  • focus and concentration

  • decision making

  • creativity & innovation

  • balances your emotions

  • reduces your hunger cravings

Sleep helps the brain's neuroplasticity, that is, its ability to re-wire itself and create new connections between neurons. Neuroplasticity enables the brain to ‘pick up’ new skills, change and adapt to its environment stimuli, and ultimately learn new things. it does this by restoring the synapses - the microscopic connections between neurons that together with brain chemicals, or neurotransmitters, facilitate the passing of electrical impulses from one neuron to another. During the day, synapses switch on in response to the stimuli that the brain receives from the environment. But during sleep, the activity of these synapses goes back to normal. Without this restorative period during sleep, they would stay excited at their peak activity levels for too long.

Areas of the brain in which sleep increases activity include:

  • amygdala

  • striatum

  • hippocampus

  • insula

  • medial prefrontal cortex

The amygdala (also known as our animal brain) is the part of our brain that controls the fight or flight impulse. We experience fear in this part of the brain and the balance between the amygdala and our pre-frontal cortex is required to regulate our emotions. When we get enough sleep, the amygdala responds in a more measured and adaptive way. But if you’re sleep-deprived, the amygdala is more likely to overreact.

Research shows that sleep and mental health are intertwined. On the one hand, sleep disturbances can contribute to the onset and progression of mental health issues, but on the other hand, mental health issues can also contribute to sleep disturbances.

Sleep affects your weight by controlling hunger hormones. These hormones include ghrelin, which increases appetite, and leptin, which increases the feeling of being full after eating. When we sleep, ghrelin decreases because we’re using less energy than when awake. Lack of sleep, however, elevates ghrelin and suppresses leptin. This imbalance makes you hungrier, which may increase the risk of eating more calories and gaining weight.

Recent research shows that chronic sleep deprivation, even as few as five consecutive nights of short sleep, may be associated with increased risk of:

  • obesity

  • metabolic syndrome

  • type 2 diabetes

Sleep may protect against insulin resistance. It keeps your cells healthy so they can easily take up glucose. The brain also uses less glucose during sleep, which helps the body regulate overall blood glucose.

Sleep also helps us develop a healthy and strong immune system. Sleep deprivation can inhibit the immune response and make the body susceptible to germs. When you sleep, your body makes cytokines, which are proteins that fight infection and inflammation. It also produces certain antibodies and immune cells. Together, these molecules prevent sickness by destroying harmful germs.

That’s why sleep is so important when you’re sick or stressed. During these times, the body needs even more immune cells and proteins.

The average adult needs 7 to 8 hours of sleep a night. Lack of sleep is associated with risk factors for heart disease, including:

  • high blood pressure

  • increased sympathetic nervous system activity

  • increased inflammation

  • elevated cortisol levels

  • weight gain

  • insulin resistance

Sleep helps us to function at peak levels when we are awake. When we steal our sleep hours, we are stealing performance from our awake hours and we are cutting short our life span by years or even decades.

Sleep is a very productive part of our day. Don't lose it for short-term gains. Your life and performance is in your hands and in your decisions with regard to your sleep schedules.

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