Not enough sleep throws your circadian rhythm off, leading to potential cognitive problems
Sleep deprivation leads to a shutdown in the production of essential proteins.
- Two new studies indicate what happens when your natural circadian rhythm is disrupted by not enough sleep.
- The production of essential proteins is disrupted by a lack of sleep, which could result in cognitive decline.
- From dementia to an uptick in obesity, sleep deprivation wreaks havoc in your physiology.
As sleep science continues to discover the necessary benefits of a good night's rest, roughly one-third of Americans sleep less than six hours every night. Two new studies, both published in the journal Science, and both conducted on mice, have deepened our understanding of why sleep matters so much to cognitive and physical health.
The downsides of sleep deprivation are well-known. From an increase in automobile accidents to stark cognitive decline (sometimes leading to dementia) to weight gain, a regular sleep schedule is the best recovery tool we have in our biological arsenal. Napping has been shown to help, though the eight-hour overnight prescription seems to hold up best, for most people. Sleeping too much, it turns out, has adverse affects as well, but that's not a problem most run into.
For the studies published in Science, researchers were able to better understand the relationship between sleep cycles and our circadian rhythm, the internal timekeeper that preps us for shutting down and waking back up. While a number of factors play into that rhythm — screen time, caffeine intake, habitual behaviors, work schedule — by honoring its natural cycle you prime for your body for optimal health.
Falling off the cycle, it turns out, disrupts communication between the neurons necessary for maintaining a healthy relationship to our nightly ritual.
The Science of Sleep
In the first study, researchers at the University of Zürich discovered that our circadian rhythm regulates protein transcription. When you're feeling tired and head off to bed, the proteins necessary for healthy cellular functioning are produced, peaking at two points in the day: right before bed and upon waking up. Sleep sets into motion the transcripts for protein-building, while waking up promotes synapse-firing, the communications device that allows neurons to speak.
When mice were deprived sleep, the transcripts malfunctioned. The messenger RNA (mRNA) were unable to deliver the messages necessary for completing the protein-building and synapse-firing phases that sleep provides. The team, led by Sara B. Noya at the Institute of Pharmacology and Toxicology, writes:
"Under conditions of high sleep pressure, one-fourth of mRNAs remained identically circadian, and most preserved some degree of circadian rhythmicity. In contrast, no substantial circadian rhythm could be detected in any protein when sleep pressure was constantly high."
The takeaway: honoring your circadian rhythm — some of us are early risers, others late to bed, so nuance matters; what appears stable is that seven-to-nine hours of sleep works for most everyone — will result in the proper building of proteins and communication between neurons. Depriving yourself of sleep will not only make you tired; your mental health will pay the price over time.
Illustration of the biological clock. Depending on sunlight perceived by the eye, signals are sent to the suprachiasmatic nucleus, home of the circadian clock, located in the hypothalamus, which controls various biological rhythms. The brain controls the secretion of melatonin (sleep hormone), which increases as light diminishes.
Image source: Jacopin / BSIP / Universal Images Group via Getty Images
For the second study, a team led by Franziska Brüning (Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich; the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry) measured the attachments of a phosphate molecule that turns these proteins on and off every four hours, aka "circadian clock-driven protein phosphorylation." Previous studies have measured this process every 24 hours, making this new research more revealing in terms of how these proteins operate.
As with the companion study above, they discovered two peaks, one upon sleeping, the other before waking. The team writes that previously it was not well understood how time of day affected phosphorylation. By depriving mice of sleep, an abundance of the process was lost in forebrain synapses. They write:
"Our data uncover molecular processes in synapses whose activity is temporally gated by phosphorylation, such as synaptic inhibition at dawn and excitation at dusk."
Maria Robles, who took part in both papers, says these companion studies reveal the our brain has developed "a beautiful way to control" the molecules necessary for healthy physical and cognitive functioning. While mice are not men, our shared DNA allow such studies to reveal the inner workings of human physiology. These two studies bring us closer to revealing what we already instinctually know: nothing replaces a good night's sleep.
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The idea of 'absolute time' is an illusion. Physics and subjective experience reveal why.
- Since Einstein posited his theory of general relativity, we've understood that gravity has the power to warp space and time.
- This "time dilation" effect occurs even at small levels.
- Outside of physics, we experience distortions in how we perceive time — sometimes to a startling extent.
Physics without time<p>In his book "The Order of Time," Italian theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli suggests that our perception of time — our sense that time is forever flowing forward — could be a highly subjective projection. After all, when you look at reality on the smallest scale (using equations of quantum gravity, at least), time vanishes.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"If I observe the microscopic state of things," writes Rovelli, "then the difference between past and future vanishes … in the elementary grammar of things, there is no distinction between 'cause' and 'effect.'"</p><p>So, why do we perceive time as flowing <em>forward</em>? Rovelli notes that, although time disappears on extremely small scales, we still obviously perceive events occur sequentially in reality. In other words, we observe entropy: Order changing into disorder; an egg cracking and getting scrambled.</p><p>Rovelli says key aspects of time are described by the second law of thermodynamics, which states that heat always passes from hot to cold. This is a one-way street. For example, an ice cube melts into a hot cup of tea, never the reverse. Rovelli suggests a similar phenomenon might explain why we're only able to perceive the past and not the future.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Any time the future is definitely distinguishable from the past, there is something like heat involved," Rovelli wrote for the <a href="https://www.ft.com/content/ce6ef7b8-429a-11e8-93cf-67ac3a6482fd" target="_blank"><em>Financial Times</em></a>. "Thermodynamics traces the direction of time to something called the 'low entropy of the past', a still mysterious phenomenon on which discussions rage."</p>
The strange subjectivity of time<p>Time moves differently atop a mountain than it does on a beach. But you don't need to travel any distance at all to experience strange distortions in your perception of time. In moments of life-or-death fear, for example, your brain would release large amounts of adrenaline, which would speed up your internal clock, causing you to perceive the outside world as moving slowly.<br></p><p>Another common distortion occurs when we focus our attention in particular ways.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"If you're thinking about how time is <em>currently</em> passing by, the biggest factor influencing your time perception is attention," Aaron Sackett, associate professor of marketing at the University of St. Thomas, told <em><a href="https://gizmodo.com/why-does-time-slow-down-and-speed-up-1840133782" target="_blank">Gizmodo</a></em>.<em> "</em>The more attention you give to the passage of time, the slower it tends to go. As you become distracted from time's passing—perhaps by something interesting happening nearby, or a good daydreaming session—you're more likely to lose track of time, giving you the feeling that it's slipping by more quickly than before. "Time flies when you're having fun," they say, but really, it's more like "time flies when you're thinking about other things." That's why time will also often fly by when you're definitely <em>not</em> having fun—like when you're having a heated argument or are terrified about an upcoming presentation."</p><p>One of the most mysterious ways people experience time-perception distortions is through psychedelic drugs. In an interview with <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/apr/14/carlo-rovelli-exploding-commonsense-notions-order-of-time-interview" target="_blank"><em>The Guardian</em></a>, Rovelli described a time he experimented with LSD.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"It was an extraordinarily strong experience that touched me also intellectually," he said. "Among the strange phenomena was the sense of time stopping. Things were happening in my mind but the clock was not going ahead; the flow of time was not passing any more. It was a total subversion of the structure of reality."<br></p><p>It seems few scientists or philosophers believe time is completely an illusion.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"What we call <em>time</em> is a rich, stratified concept; it has many layers," Rovelli told <em><a href="https://physicstoday.scitation.org/do/10.1063/PT.6.4.20190219a/full/" target="_blank">Physics Today</a>.</em> "Some of time's layers apply only at limited scales within limited domains. This does not make them illusions."</p>What <em>is</em> an illusion is the idea that time flows at an absolute rate. The river of time might be flowing forever forward, but it moves at different speeds, between people, and even within your own mind.
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