Lose Sleep, Lose Brain Cells?

Maylin Rodriguez-Paez, RN

Losing sleep? You could also be losing your brain cells, according to the results of a latest study.

Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania placed mice on different sleep schedules to study the effect it had on their brains, and what they found was somewhat surprising.

Not only did the lack of sleep prove to be damaging, the outcomes turned out to be worse than expected.

Lack of Sleep Increases Oxidative Stress and Kills Neurons

Researchers placed mice on different sleep schedules. One sleep schedule mirrored that of shift workers, in which they were kept awake for long periods of time. The other group was allowed to sleep normally, and the third group was kept awake past their typical sleep schedule for short periods of time.

The group that experienced short-term sleep deprivation produced more sirtuin type 3 (SirT3). This protein regulates oxidative stress and mitochondrial function. In times of stress, SirT3 production increases to protect neurons against free radical damage.1

The “shift work” group had reduced SirT3 levels and showed oxidative damage to a group of brain cells situated in a region that is called the locus coeruleus. These brain cells control alertness and cognitive function. Mice lost approximately 25% of the neurons in this area within a few days.1

According to results of this study, the mouse brain can handle short periods of sleep deprivation and even has mechanisms in place to protect itself from injury. Chronic sleep deprivation, however, seems to inflict permanent brain damage.

Don’t Take Sleep for Granted

The implications of this study are pretty simple: Don’t take sleep for granted.

Losing a couple of hours of sleep occasionally is probably not going to hurt you, but chronic sleep deprivation could potentially damage your brain.

Also, making up for lost sleep during the weekend is probably not going to help much especially if the sleep deprivation is chronic. The idea is to sleep well daily.

Now in certain cases, sleep doesn't come easy. Insomnia is a pretty common condition that can have dangerous consequences. Lifestyle changes as well as supplements may come in handy.

Melatonin Reduces Oxidative Stress and Helps Sleep

Before taking sleeping pills, why not try something natural first? You may be better off in the long run since there is research linking benzodiazepines (a class of sleeping pills) to brain disorders like dementia.2

Melatonin is an option. It shortens the amount of time it takes to fall asleep and enhances sleep quality.3-4 Also, there is research showing melatonin benefits the brain. In fact, it acts like a brain antioxidant, and it protects against neurodegenerative diseases.

Melatonin guards against beta amyloid, an abnormal protein implicated in Alzheimer’s disease.5 It’s also been shown to enhance cognitive function when taken for extended periods of time (15–60 months).6

Considering the sleep and cognitive benefits of melatonin, it makes sense to try it.

The Bottom Line

Chronic sleep deprivation may eventually catch up with you. It’s in your best interest to get at least 7–8 hours of sleep daily.

If you’re looking for other suggestions to enhance your sleep, check out our insomnia protocol, which goes into much further detail!


  1. Available at: http://www.uphs.upenn.edu/news/News_Releases/2014/03/veasey/. Accessed March 19, 2014.
  2. BMJ. 2012 Sep 27;345:e6231.
  3. Psychopharmacology. 2010; 212: 379-91.
  4. Integrated Blood Pressure Control. 2012; 5: 9-17.
  5. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2005 Nov;1056:430-49.
  6. Am J Neurodegener Dis. 2012;1(3):280-91.


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