Sleep – Extending your life and washing your brain!

Most of us have experienced the impact of poor sleep, but how many of us realise the extent to which poor sleep affects not only day-to-day tiredness but also our health, quality of life and lifespan?

Getting sufficient, quality sleep is often seen as somewhat of a luxury, with sleep deprivation worn like a badge of stamina; justifying another large mug of coffee or that caffeine drink mid-morning.

But fatigue, lack of energy and poor concentration are only the more obvious, superficial symptoms we see as a result of insufficient or poor quality sleep. Research is now clearly showing us that we’re paying the price with our health and even shaving time off our lives.

When we sleep, we aren’t simply rejuvenating our energy levels. Through the various, active stages of our sleep cycles, different processes and functions take place which support physical and mental health and protect us against infection and illness.

For example, during the deeper levels of sleep, cellular repair is taking place throughout the body, our immune system is being ‘recharged’ and hormones are regulated, which contributes to sustaining health and resulting in benefits such as reducing inflammation.

During sleep we also see memories and learning encoded for future recall and emotional experiences are processed, supporting mental health. Research has even now captured images of the ‘brain washing’ process, whereby cerebrospinal fluid flushes the brain of toxins and debris which build up during the day (Fultz et al 2019). These toxins are known to be detrimental for brain health and this flushing is even suggested to play a role in healing mild brain injury (Piantino et al 2021).

We can perhaps begin to understand why researchers stress the importance of sleep in protecting our health. For example, many long-term health conditions such as cardiovascular disease, inflammatory diseases, chronic pain, depression and diabetes are linked with insufficient sleep (Zheng et al 2019, Touma & Pannain 2011). Disruption of the hormone insulin due to poor sleep is also known in increase the risk of obesity and even significantly impact the amount of weight lost when dieting, despite our best efforts (Greer, Goldstein & Walker 2013).

There is even a recognised link between the build-up of toxins and plaque within the brain with the development of disorders such as Alzheimer’s (Shokri-Kojori et al 2018). When we fail to get sufficient sleep we interfere with the protective process of ‘brain washing’.

Is it any wonder improving our sleep is cited as the single most effective way that we can improve the quality and length of our lives?

Yet so many of us accept that we’re just not good sleepers, or that we are too busy to implement good sleep routine, thinking that if we can put up with the fatigue then there isn’t really a problem.

The good news is there are changes we can make to improve our sleep which will benefit every area of our wellbeing. Even if we think we will never have the ‘perfect’ 7-9 hours, high quality sleep; any enhancement we can make reduces the toll we are taking on our health and lifespan, even if that’s just half an hour more sleep each night! If you want to improve your sleep, we recommend looking at CBTi based approaches, as these are the most evidenced-based strategies for enhancing sleep.

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Greer, S. M., Goldstein, A. N., & Walker, M. P. (2013). The impact of sleep deprivation on food desire in the human brain. Nature communications, 4, 2259.

Juan Piantino, Daniel L Schwartz, Madison Luther, Craig D. Newgard, Lisa Silbert, Murray Raskind, Kathleen Pagulayan, Natalia Kleinhans, Jeffrey Iliff, and Elaine Peskind. "Link Between Mild Traumatic Brain Injury, Poor Sleep, and MRI-Visible Perivascular Spaces in Veterans." Journal of Neurotrauma (First published online: February 18, 2021) DOI: 10.1089/neu.2020.7447

Nina E. Fultz, Giorgio Bonmassar, Kawin Setsompop, Robert A. Stickgold, Bruce R. Rosen, Jonathan R. Polimeni, Laura D. Lewis. "Coupled Electrophysiological, Hemodynamic, and Cerebrospinal Fluid Oscillations in Human Sleep." Science (First published; November 01, 2019) DOI: 10.1126/science.aax5440

Shokri-Kojori E, Wang GJ, Wiers CE, Demiral SB, Guo M, Kim SW, Lindgren E, Ramirez V, Zehra A, Freeman C, Miller G, Manza P, Srivastava T, De Santi S, Tomasi D, Benveniste H, Volkow ND. (2018) β-Amyloid accumulation in the human brain after one night of sleep deprivation. Available from

Touma, C. & Pannain, S. (2011). Does lack of sleep cause diabetes? Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine, 78 (8), 549 - 558

Zheng, B., Canqing, Y., Lv, J., Guo, Y., Bian, Z., Zhou, M., Yang, L., Chen, Y., Li, X., Zou, Ju., Ning, F., Chen, J., Chen, Z. & Li, L. (2019). Insomnia symptoms and risk of cardiovascular diseases among 0.5 million adults. A 10-year cohort. Neurology, 93 (23) 2110-2120.

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