The Scary Thing That Happens to Your Brain When You Don’t Get Enough Sleep

If you're tossing and turning every night, there's some bad news. Your brain could be in big trouble!

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And you thought getting your recommended seven to nine hours of zzz’s was the only thing you needed to worry about. Turns out, there are some pretty scary side effects to sleep loss, all around. (By the way, getting too much sleep could be bad for your health, too.)

A study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, investigated how the brain responds to bad sleep habits using lab mice. Their surprising discovery revealed that not getting enough deep sleep, along with not sleeping at all, can literally cause your brain to start eating itself. No kidding!

The team of researchers, led by neuroscientist Michele Bellesi from the Marche Polytechnic University in Italy, divided the mice into four groups. While the well-rested group slept for six to eight hours, another was periodically woken up from sleep, the third group was kept awake for an extra eight hours, and a final group remained chronically sleep-deprived, staying awake for five days straight.

When the researchers compared brain activity across the four groups, they noted something odd. The neurons of both the well-rested and sleep-deprived groups continued the same healthy brain-cleaning activity that always happens when we sleep. But the brains of the sleep-deprived mice went into overdrive and began harming themselves, too.

Sound crazy? We don’t blame you. But this isn’t news to the scientific community. As we sleep, our brains do more than replenish our energy; they also clear away the toxic byproducts of neural activity from the day. (It’s also why your brain has a delete button!) While we’ve known that this process occurs when we get a good night’s sleep, apparently the same thing can happen when we lose sleep, too. But because of the lack of shut-eye, the brain goes a bit overboard with its cleaning—hence its terrifying self-eating habit.

We have only one conclusion. In the name of your brain’s health, you have a pretty good reason to hit the hay an hour earlier tonight.

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