How a single night of not sleeping affects your brain health

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Sleep is such an important part of our lives. We spend about one-third of our lives doing it.  In fact, if you look at the SELF Principle, sleep is one of the core components.  In a US health survey of about 250,000 people, one-third of them reported getting less than 6 hours of sleep each night. Poor sleep is linked to health problems such as obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, impaired brain functioning, and even kidney health.

What happens with missing a single night of sleep? How does it affect our brain function, mood, energy, and mental responses?  More importantly, what is the impact on the brain’s cleaning functions and proteins such as beta-amyloid?

Beta-amyloid is nothing more than a precursor protein to amyloid.  It is considered a metabolic waste product that forms in the brain’s interstitial fluid. Too much beta-amyloid buildup is linked with devastating illnesses such as Alzheimer’s disease.  Our brains do a remarkable job of cleaning out beta-amyloid every night. Therefore, the less you sleep, the more likely you are to have a beta-amyloid buildup

The brain’s cleaning ability is fascinating. But the exact mechanism for how the brain performs this cleaning is still a bit of a mystery. Studies have shown that beta-amyloid is linked with poor brain functioning. 


In a recent study, Dr. Ehsan Shokri-Kojori and colleagues used positron emission tomography (PET) scans to look at the brains of 20 healthy adults ages 22 to 72. They measured beta-amyloid in the brain after getting a full night of sleep and after a single night of sleep deprivation (roughly 31 hours without sleep).  The authors found that a single night of sleep loss was associated with approximately a 5% increase in the beta-amyloid build up in the hippocampus and parahippocampal areas. These are the brain’s areas important in both forming and retrieving memories.

The next day, the authors tested the participants on various things like alertness, mood, happiness, and social confusion. They found that a single night of not sleeping adversely affected all of these markers. Also, participants with the largest increase in beta-amyloid had the greatest mood worsening.

Bottom Line

So what’s the bottom line here? What this study is telling us once again is that sleep is such an essential part of our lives. I recommend aiming for 7 to 9 hours of sleep for all adults.  You can improve your sleep by following some simple recommendations:

  • Create a consistent sleep schedule. Go to sleep and wake up at the same time each day.
  • Avoid any caffeine after 12 pm each day
  • Avoid large meals or alcohol before bedtime
  • Exercise daily
  • Remove all electronic devices from your bedroom.


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Sean Hashmi MD
Articles: 56

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