How your macho ego is slowly destroying your brain.

Macho Man - Randy Savage

Macho Man – Randy Savage

Maybe you’ve done it too

The report isn’t finished, the deadline is tomorrow, and it just has to be done.

You have no choice.

So you’ve loaded up on Red Bull, No-Doz, whatever legal upper you can get, and got busy.

You worked through the night.

You got it done.

You’re a legend.

And maybe it’s killing you.

The all-nighter

When it’s occasional, we can usually feel fine within a few days. The day immediately after the all-nighter itself, is usually manageable.

The next day is a killer.

The day after slightly less so, but still pretty ugly.

Going without sleep for only a single night substantially disrupts our daily clock, our circadian rhythms, and the brain takes considerable time – days that is – to get things back in order. Regularity is crucial for sleep, and so the brain seeks to restore it, including how much time it spends in each of the stages of sleep.

Broken sleep, such as when you have a new baby, is different again, in that we seem constantly tired, sleep is disrupted every night, and it can take months to get on top of our own sleep.

But make no mistake… if you deprive the brain of sleep, incurring a sleep debt as you go, your brain will, one way or another, make you pay. It wants to restore the balance it had, and the routine it was used to. Now that you’ve gone and messed it up, the brain wants it back.

There is always a cost, and sleep debt comes with interest.

Debt and interest

Research from the Divisions of Sleep Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and Harvard Medical School, both of Boston, showed that prolonged sleep restriction, with concurrent disruption of the brain’s circadian rhythms, altered metabolism to the point that we increase the risk of obesity and diabetes.

Moreover, one night’s sleep loss makes the brain hungrier, affects the ability to choose proper foods, and increases the calories and grams of food we purchase the next day.

Then a recent study from Uppsala University, Sweden, identified an increase in morning bloodstream concentrations of two molecules, namely NSE and S-100B, after a night without sleep. The trick is, these molecules are typically found in the brain, and higher concentrations in the blood are indicative of conditions of brain damage, suggesting that lack of sleep, even for only one night, might contribute to loss of brain tissue, and contribute to neurodegenerative disorders.

In New York, researchers from the University of Rochester and New York University used two-photon imaging to show that sleep allowed a 60% increase in the space between brain cells, vastly increasing the flow and reach of cerebrospinal fluid, into the nooks and crannies of your brain that it can’t reach during waking hours.

The benefit of this increase in space is that waste products such as beta-amyloid proteins, which are the waste byproduct of the brain’s daily activity, are cleared much faster. Sleep deprivation interferes with this process and this potentially neurotoxic waste remains lurking in the brain. Beta-amyloid plaques are a feature of Alzheimer’s disease.

Meanwhile, Chris Phoenix and Aubrey D.N.J. de Grey argue that aging is, in short, the accumulation of damage. By this they mean the “accumulation of the intrinsic molecular and cellular side-effects of metabolism”, just as beta-amyloid is a byproduct of the brain’s activity.

We know also that severe sleep deprivation kicks the immune system into action, showing the same kind of response seen during exposure to stress. 

These effects are extra to the already well-known effects of sleep loss on concentration, attention, cognitive performance, physical performance, mood, memory and so on.

So what does that mean?

Is is too much to say that sleep deprivation causes brain problems?


Can we say that sleep deprivation causes brain disease, such as Alzheimer’s?

Maybe, maybe not.

But they’re clearly strongly correlated, and although a bi-directional relationship exists, the evidence is looking more and more like sleep deprivation can be a weighty contributor to the development of dysfunction like this.

Why then, do we persist with the all-nighter, the overdone hours, and the appearance that sleep, as author Alan Derickson writes, is for sissies.

Sleep is for sissies

In a new book, Alan Derickson (2014, University of Pennsylvania Press) makes the point that in modern American culture (which we’re extending to similar cultures) it’s a price we, and particularly men, are encouraged to pay. Stamina equals manliness.

For women, (although the book is primarily about men) with the added expectation that they look after the lion’s share of home chores, it’s not necessarily that they’re encouraged to deprive themselves of sleep, but by having to work the two jobs of employment and home, and then with the masculine expectations of the workplace to boot, they face an even steeper hill to climb.

Dangerously Sleepy explores the fraught relations between overwork, sleep deprivation, and public health. Health and labor historian Alan Derickson charts the cultural and political forces behind the overvaluation—and masculinization—of wakefulness in the United States.”

Naturally, there are standout examples of the potentially tragic consequences of sleeplessness, and Derickson references the events of Three Mile Island, and the grounding of the Exxon Valdez, along with industries notable for their ‘sleep is for sissies’ mentality and the prevailing dogma that minimizes the need for rest. 

Given what we know about both the short, and long-term consequences of sleeplessness on the brain, are we setting ourselves up for later costs? And what message are we sending those new to the workforce?

So here’s the take home bit

Is your macho ego destroying your brain.

I think so.

Love to hear your thoughts.

Impressive words to drop into the morning coffee chat

Beta-amyloid, neurotoxic

What do you think?

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About brendonbclark

Hi, I’m Brendon, but people usually call me B. I’ve a Masters degree in psychology, postgraduate qualification in mental health, and qualifications in counselling, professional supervision and adult education. I consult, speak and blog. Join me, you can subscribe for free.
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