Sleep yourself to a better memory?

Every lifestyle choice has the potential to affect your cognitive abilities and health. In recent years, various researchers have found that a habit that most of us take for granted — sleep — may affect our memory in noticeable ways.

Does sleep help long term memories stick?

In a study published in the June 2011 issue of Science, University of Washington researchers studied the role of sleep in forming long-term memories by using a special breed of fruit flies that could be induced to sleep on demand. First, the male flies studied in this paper were “trained” by being exposed to other, genetically engineered males who released female pheromones.

After several courtships and rejections during this training period, some of these flies were then forced to sleep for 4 hours. These sleepers made no further attempts to court the engineered males when exposed to them again — suggesting that sleep had helped form a long-term memory of the earlier deception.

But flies who didn’t sleep were tricked once more by the same genetically engineered males. The researchers in this study concluded that training alone was not enough to trigger memory consolidation — sleep was a necessary component. While this study’s results don’t necessarily carry over to humans, they help cast the role of sleep in a new light.

How lack of sleep could hurt you

Not only may sleep help your memory, but lack of sleep may also hurt your health. A 2010 study from Biological Psychiatry found that chronic insomnia may lead to loss of brain volume. Researchers used fMRI scans to examine the brains of 37 human subjects with and without chronic insomnia. Insomniacs had a smaller volumes of gray matter in three brain areas — and the more serious the insomnia, the greater the loss of volume.

And in 2012, a preliminary study from the Washington University School of Medicine found that in mice, poor sleep may be related to brain plaques associated with Alzheimer’s.

The future of sleep studies

The third of our life that we spend sleeping has always been something of a mystery. Now a new wave of studies are finding indications that while we may appear to be in a stupor, our brains are actually hard at work. It may take many more years or decades before we reach definite conclusions about all the many roles that sleep plays, but most scientists agree that getting a decent night’s rest is a good idea.

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Insomnia and health risks

Chronic lack of sleep poses a lot of known debilitating effects such as  fatigue, lack of clear judgment and decision making, inability to focus, slowed  response, mood changes, irritability and reduced energy levels. Little did  people know that with sleep imbalance, a lot more disruptions in body processes  happen inside the body.

Latest researches look into other serious effects of lack of sleep. The UCLA  research team released a report which says that losing sleep even for a night  may cause abnormalities in cellular pathways which induces tissue damaging  inflammation reactions. On the other hand, a good sleep can decrease the risk of  heart disease and rheumatoid arthritis.

Inside our body, there is this substance which main task is to signal  inflammatory processes – the nuclear factor (NF)-κB. It was observed that after  subjects were deprived of sleep for just one night, the day after, activation of  (NF)-κB signaling was significantly greater as compared to the baseline  measurements. Interestingly, this increase was only seen among female  subjects.

This finding, according to the team may strengthen the link between sleep  disturbance and the wide array of medical conditions such cardiovascular  disease, arthritis, diabetes, certain cancers, and obesity. Dr. John H. Krystal  says, “the closer that we look at sleep, the more that we learn about the  benefits of sleeping.”

Accordingly, another research by the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston  looked into the relationship of sleep imbalance and cardiovascular risks. Dr.  Najib Ayas says, “sleep is probably one of the pillars to a healthy lifestyle.  Too little sleep puts stress on the body.” This was after they found out that  women who have been sleeping less and more than the usual sleeping hours had  increased risk of developing heart disease.

Undeniably, the length of sleep really does matter. There is 45% risk of  having heart problems among women sleeping 5 hours of less. Those who slept six  hours only had 18% increased risk while those who slept for seven hours only had  9% risk.

If less is bad, then adding more to these hours might make it good. However,  people should not add too much to their sleeping hours. This can be supported by  the finding that women who slept nine hours have 38% increased risk for  developing heart problems as compared to women who slept for 8 hours.

The possible rationale behind these data is the increase in cortisol, a  hormone which is secreted during any stressful situation (physical, emotional,  physiological, etc.) This has long been associated with the increase in blood  pressure. On the other hand, increased risk among those with longer hours of  sleep is probably associated with depression, sleep apnea and chronic pulmonary  disease.

These figures have become more relevant as results of the Sleep in America  poll by the National Sleep Foundation show an increasing incidence of people who  have less sleep. The trend shows that fewer adults are getting 8 hours of sleep.  Average sleep of women is 7 hours as compared to men with 6.7 hours per night.

Women are said to be more likely to report symptoms of insomnia (63% as compared  to men with 54%.) More women also report frequent daytime sleepiness (20% vs.  13% for men.) Furthermore, more than one quarter of women even said that they  need to get more sleep so that they can be totally alert the following day.

All these data then encourage patients to discuss with their doctors their  sleep hygiene: quantity and quality of sleep, daytime sleepiness, snoring,  pauses in breathing, leg movements or other disruptions during the night – all  of which can affect their current and future overall state of health.

By: Gerrard Mackenzie