Neurology Insights

Your Brain on Sleep: The Power of A Good Night’s Rest

A good night’s rest is worth its weight in gold. Not just for its restorative benefits but for its neuroprotective advantages too!

When you get a good night’s rest, your brain will thank you!

What happens when we sleep?

We all know that feeling of waking up from a good night’s rest. We wake up refreshed, alert, and ready to tackle the day. And the opposite is true when we don’t get enough sleep; we feel lethargic, forgetful, and even irritable. Why is this?

With more and more emerging research, we now have more significant insights into the mystery of sleep and why humans need adequate sleep to function correctly.

The Sleep Cycles - Stages of a Good Night's Rest

Along with our circadian rhythms (our body’s natural 24-hour cycle), our brains also undergo another cycle known as the five stages of sleep. These five stages include the Wake cycle, N1, N2, N3, and REM sleep.

Research has shown that proper cognitive function requires at least seven undisturbed hours of sleep per night. While some individuals can get by with less sleep, this is the amount of sleep that I usually recommend.

Graphic showing the 5 phases of sleep. These stages are all important components of getting a good night's rest and keeping your brain healthy.

The “five stages of sleep” consists of two main phases that our brains undergo and alternate between throughout the night.

Phase 1 is a lighter sleep known as NREM (non-rapid eye movement). In this phase, the body transitions into three stages (N1 to N2 and N3 sleep). First, the body moves from awake to a light sleep period involving changes in heart rate and muscle stimulation. As you progress into a deeper sleep, the brain eventually reaches N3, a deeper stage known as slow-wave sleep. Scientists have pinpointed slow-wave sleep as integral to brain repair and cleansing.

Phase 2 is a deeper sleep phase known as REM (rapid eye movement). This stage is when dreams occur, and memory formation and storage happen. REM sleep is well known for its varied muscle moments, including the eyes moving back and forth.

Now, what is so unique about slow waves and deeper phases of sleep? Studies show that this may be the key component of preventing neurodegenerative disease.

The Brains Garbage Disposal System

It’s trash day! (Tonight, tomorrow night, and the next night after that) 

Recent research has shown that we wake up feeling refreshed after a good night’s sleep, partly because our brains underwent housekeeping the night before!

Clearing out waste from the brain is crucial to the body’s nightly sleep routine. When you don’t sleep deeply, the brain cannot reach slow-wave sleep, preventing neural housekeeping.

The result? Toxic waste accumulation in the brain.

How does this work?

During slow-wave sleep, the brain’s glymphatic system (a waste pathway designed to carry out toxic waste) becomes activated. This system is

“scheduled” to perform a nightly brain “wash” using waves of CSF (cerebrospinal fluid) to carry away excess beta-amyloid (aka toxic waste) formations from the brain.

Research has shown that without proper sleep and slow-wave sleep, our brains cannot undergo this cleansing process, leading to an excess accumulation of amyloids in the brain.

The Cost of Poor Sleep

Studies have shown that inadequate sleep leads to detrimental consequences on mental and physical well-being. In the case of excess waste in the brain, neurological malfunction is, in essence, a ticking time bomb.

Science has linked inadequate sleep to the following conditions:

  • Heightened cortisol levels in the body
  • Neuron malfunction
  • Cellular damage
  • Weakened immune system
  • Increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia
  • Weight gain
  • Decreased cognitive performance
  • Decreased focus and attention
  • Increased risk of injury or motor vehicle accidents
  • Long-term memory problems
  • Increased risk of mood disorders and more

The connection between sleep and neurodegenerative disease

Regarding life-altering brain diseases, conditions such as Alzheimer’s and dementia have one thing in common: abnormal levels of beta-amyloid plaques in the brain. When excess beta-amyloid proteins accumulate around the brain’s neurons, these “plaques” block, disrupt and destroy neurological pathways. The disruption of these pathways drastically impacts memory and cognitive function.

One way to help prevent excess plaque accumulation within the brain is to sleep. And sleep well. With proper sleep, the brain can undergo routine “housekeeping and garbage disposal,” which helps protect the brain from neurodegeneration.

For more information on the benefits of sleep and tips for getting a better night’s rest, check out our article here.

A message from Dr. Kandel

“Sleep is essential. And I often tell my patients that there are two things that the body needs: sleep/oxygen and water. How little sleep is too little is uncertain, but the rule of thumb is that if you wake up and are fatigued, tired, or don’t feel refreshed, you did not get enough deep, restorative sleep. Many techniques can be utilized to improve your sleep hygiene. Speak to your physician about different techniques that can be utilized to improve the quality and quantity of your sleep. You owe it to your future self to take care of your brain now, and that starts with getting into the habit of a good sleep cycle.”

Dr. Joseph Kandel portrait

Joseph Kandel, MD

Board Certified Neurologist
Serving Naples and Fort Myers, FL

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