Sleep keeps the brain healthy by clearing out toxins that naturally build up throughout the day.

Two types of cells, microglial cells and astrocytes, perform this cleaning process. During sleep, microglial cells help remove a toxic protein commonly found in the brains of Alzheimer’s disease patients called beta-amyloid. The astrocytes prune away unnecessary synapses and repair the brain’s neural wiring. However, the same process is activated when the body is deprived of sleep, but instead of only attacking toxins, microglial cells and astrocytes start attacking healthy, functioning tissues.

The effects of sleep deprivation

Even one night without sleep can wreak havoc on the brain. Duke University researchers compared individuals’ gambling decisions after a night of good sleep and after a sleepless night. They discovered that individuals who were kept from sleeping made riskier decisions, ones which favored betting large amounts of money regardless of potential losses. In other words, sleep deprivation increased sensitivity to positive rewards while diminishing sensitivity to negative consequences.

Casino owners have known this for years. A casino’s bright lights, loud noise, and lack of windows are designed to stop you from noticing the passage of time, thus keeping you at the tables long after you should be in bed.

Good sleep hygiene practices

Sleep requirements vary over the course of a lifetime, with the most hours of sleep needed in infancy and the fewest needed after the age of 65. Generally, adults should sleep between seven and nine hours a night, but individual requirements vary by health status and activity level.

If you’re having trouble getting a good night’s sleep, consider the following good sleep hygiene practices:

  1. Limit napping to 20 minutes.
  2. Avoid caffeine and nicotine close to bedtime.
  3. Exercise! But not too close to bedtime.
  4. Stay clear of foods that might trigger indigestion right before bed. Generally, you should quit eating three hours before bedtime.
  5. Make sure you get enough sunlight during the day to keep your internal clock in-check.
  6. Try to keep a regular sleep routine — this helps the body know it’s time to sleep.
  7. Keep your environment pleasant. Make sure your environment matches your needs; optimal sleeping temperature is between 60 and 67 degrees Fahrenheit, consider investing in blackout curtains, and wear earplugs if you’re easily woken by noises.

Today, our lives are busier than ever, but it’s important to get enough sleep. In order to keep the brain healthy, it needs time to rest and rejuvenate.