Sleep and Optimal Brain Health

This post may contain affiliate links to products I’ve used and recommend. If you click on the link and purchase the product, I am compensated (at no additional cost to you). 

View my full disclosure here.

Hey there! Welcome back to part four of my series on brain health. When I got sober, I really spent time studying the effects of drugs on the brain. There were selfish motives involved as I was depressed, confused, and frankly concerned that I damaged my brain beyond repair. In my studies, I found that the brain has a remarkable ability to heal itself (thank God!). Additionally, I learned that there were some things I could do to aid in the healing process:

  • Exercise
  • Sleep
  • Minimize the stress

Drugs are bad for brain health

I know, shocking, right?

So I’ve written about my specific drug of choice in an interview on the site Money with a Purpose. My drug of choice was methamphetamine or commonly known on the streets as crystal meth. Additionally, I was addicted to Adderall which is amphetamine. One is illegal and the other is not and I was using Adderall when I could not get crystal meth.

Furthermore, I did a whole slew of other drugs that left me drained. Addicts typically have a drug of choice but will certainly do others when theirs is not available. Or even scarier we mix doing a bunch of different drugs together. Thank God I did not die.

When I got sober, I struggled with hypersomnia (excessive daytime sleepiness) insomnia (difficulty falling asleep). It sucked. However, it was a price I had to pay as a result of my body withdrawing from uppers. Fortunately, things got better.

Here are two really good articles for anyone in recovery and suffering from sleeplessness:

  1. Addiction and Sleep
  2. Alcohol and Sleep

I’m sure most people have experienced sleeplessness one time or another. If so you’ve probably experienced sub-optimal brain operations.

In this series, I’m often referencing the book, Brain Rules by Dr. John Medina. Medina is a developmental molecular biologist. Basically, he knows his stuff and I highly recommend his book(s). In this particular one, it’s broken down into 12 chapters according to 12 brain rules. Medina does get into the scientific workings of the brain but additionally, he uses analogies as well as stories which make for a phenomenal read.

Sleep deprivation is bad for brain health

So let’s talk about sleep and the brain and more specifically what Medina writes about with regards to this specific rule. The subheading on this chapter in his book says, “sleep well, think well” and that pretty much sums it up but we’ll dig in.

Medina starts out the chapter of his book talking about a New York disk jockey, Peter Tripp who stayed awake for 200 hours in a glass booth in the middle of Times Square. Scientists and doctors were allowed to observe and what they witnessed is fascinating.

After 72 hours of no sleep, Tripp became rude and offensive. After 120 hours Tripp showed signs of mental impairment. Additionally, he developed acute paranoid psychosis and auditory hallucinations. By the 200 hour mark, Tripp went to sleep for a long time.

Researchers have also been able to see the detrimental effects of sleep deprivation with rare families who suffer from Fatal Familial Insomnia. It’s not pretty:

  • Fevers
  • Tremors
  • Profuse sweating
  • Crushing feelings of depression and anxiety
  • Uncontrollable muscular jerks and tics
  • Psychosis
  • Coma
  • Death

The battle between sleep and awake

Apparently, there is a battle up in there. We have a set of chemicals, neurons, and hormones which are trying to keep us awake. This is called the circadian arousal system (process C).

In opposition, we have a set of chemicals, brain cells, and hormones trying to put us asleep. This is called the homeostatic sleep drive (process S).

Medina uses the analogy of armies and battles to explain how these processes work. He describes it as a paradoxical war. As one of the processes is in control of the field, it also becomes more likely to lose the battle.

“It’s almost as if each army becomes exhausted from having its way and eventually waives a temporary white flag.” – Dr. John Medina

Photo by Chuanchai Pundej on Unsplash

What happens in our brains when we sleep

Experimenters put a bunch of wires inside a rat’s brain. They observed the brain of the rat while it was learning a new maze and additionally when it was sleeping. Fascinatingly, a very discrete pattern of electrical stimulation was observed in both instances. The rat’s brain, while sleeping, was repeating what it learned during it’s waking hours.

Additionally, they found that if the rat was awakened unnaturally, it actually had a hard time remembering the maze. The inference is that interruption in sleep equals interruption in learning.

This lead researchers to question if the same thing occurs in the human brain during sleep.

It appears that humans replay our day’s learning during our sleep but in a much more complex manner.

There are some contradicting results from the research but the general consistent concept is that sleep is involved in the learning process.

We need sleep, but how much?

Medina reports that while the research is conclusive that a lack of sleep is detrimental to the brain, it’s not really clear how much sleep is needed. There are so many variables involved that Medina steers us to rather ask the question of how much sleep don’t you need?

There have been several different research studies, that I won’t report here, which show different results for different people. Some people suffer from less than 7 hours of sleep, and others with less than 6 hours. Furthermore, there are others who only seem to need 4 to 5 hours.  The bottom line is to know how much sleep you need. Once you find your sweet spot of sleep, you’ll know what to aim for.

For me, my sweet spot is right about 7 hours. My body doesn’t seem to let me sleep more than that.  When I was in my 20’s and 30’s it was more like 8-9 hours. However, as you know the drug addiction/alcoholism certainly interrupted normal sleep hours.  I got back to normal sleeping patterns within a year of recovery. However, things seem to be changing as I age.

Direct effects on brain health

While the research cannot conclude what is the right amount of sleep for you, it can explain how your cognitive functions will be affected by a lack of it. Here are the thought processes affected:

  • Attention
  • Executive function (ability to problem solve)
  • Working memory
  • Mood
  • Quantitative skills
  • Logical reasoning ability (um, you need to manage your finances)
  • General math knowledge (and you wondered why I do a brain health series on a personal finance blog)

Additionally, it can affect manual dexterity – fine and gross motor movements.

I don’t know about you, but if any of those thought processes are compromised, I’m sub-optimal…in all facets of my life.

Closing Thoughts

Photo by Jenna Christina on Unsplash

So I just skimmed the surface on the brain and sleep but if you want to dig deeper, I’d recommend Brain Rules from Dr. Medina. Additionally, a colleague has recommended another book on the necessity of sleep. I’ve yet to read it so I won’t recommend it just yet.

In simple terms, I will conclude that sleep = optimal thinking and lack of sleep = suboptimal thinking.

Which do you want to be operating with?

Furthermore, this research has confirmed the importance of knowing thyself. This girl knows how much sleep is needed to perform well at her career, run Ms. Fiology, stay active, be a loving family member, help women in recovery, and basically fulfill her purpose in life.

If you don’t know your number, how about experimenting a bit until you find it?

Let me know your thoughts…do you find this series beneficial? Interesting? Relevant? I’m open to all constructive criticism.





4 thoughts on “Sleep and Optimal Brain Health”

  1. Deanna, your blog this time “hit home” with me for sure! Seven hours of sleep seems to suffice for me. The problem is the fact I always sleep only four to five hours before I need to get up for one reason or another, and then often cannot get back to sleep for some time. And I even take a veggie Sleep Essentials capsule each evening before going to bed. Further, your Mother has many, many nights of deprived sleep, but almost exclusively due to arthritic pain. Would the book “Brain Rules” by Dr. Medina be helpful in these cases?

    Thank you,
    Your Dad

    1. Like father, like daughter.

      I’m not sure the book Brain Rules would be helpful to the concerns you address. There is another book on sleep that I want to explore; I’ll let you know if I’d recommend it.

Leave a Reply