One Night of Sleep Deprivation Ages Your Brain

By Dr. Linda J. Dobberstein, DC, Board Certified in Clinical Nutrition

June 5, 2023

One Night of Sleep Deprivation Ages Your Brain
Did you sleep well last night? Whether it is waking up to use the restroom, a crying child, a barking dog, or heavy traffic, you are familiar with the fatigue and grogginess after a night of disrupted sleep. You may also feel more absent-minded with this fatigue. A lack of sufficient, high-quality deep sleep affects your day, work quality, and accelerates brain aging. Improving sleep quality and allowing for proper bodily repair time are crucial for maintaining mental sharpness and physical vitality throughout life.

Sleep Deprivation and Molecular Clean-Up Time

Until recently, the understanding of the importance and mechanisms of sleep was limited. We know sleep is repair time, but what does that mean? In the past decade, significant progress has been made in understanding the remarkable clean-up processes that eliminate old proteins and metabolic waste from the brain accumulated during daily activities. This process takes place in the glymphatic system. Glymphatics refers to the combination of glial cells and the lymphatic fluids, and pathways within the brain. Glial cells are neuro-immune housekeeping cells in your brain.

Sleep deprivation affects how well your glymphatic system cleans things up. When you lack sleep even for one night, your metabolic trash builds up, in part because the glymphatic system doesn’t get enough time to do its job. Sleep deprivation for the glymphatic system is similar to neglecting to wash your dishes regularly. You can get by for a while without doing them, but the stack of dirty dishes, pots, and pans eventually catches up to you.

The efficiency of the glymphatic system’s clean-up process is influenced by your circadian rhythm and reaches its peak function when you sleep. Glymphatic function also decreases with age, impacting the brain’s ability to effectively remove worn-out cells and proteins.

More information about glymphatics may be found in the articles Glymphatics: Keeping the Brain’s Waste Removal System Healthy and Sleep – Molecular Clean Up Time for the Brain.

Even One Night of Sleep Deprivation Impairs Your Brain Health

Even individuals who are generally good sleepers can experience negative effects on brain health and glymphatics from even one night of sleep deprivation. A 2018 clinical trial evaluated healthy adults at baseline and then after one night of sleep deprivation.

Using highly sophisticated imaging studies, results showed compromised glymphatic function with reduced clearance of metabolic waste in areas of the hippocampus and thalamus. These regions of the brain are involved with your mood, memory, and cognitive function. At the end of the trial, participants reported a deterioration in mood.

A 2021 study published in the journal Brain further confirmed impaired waste clearance throughout the brain after one night of sleep deprivation. Scientists used sophisticated tracer elements in MRI imaging to identify this change. It found that “catch up” sleep the following night did not compensate for the sleep deprivation effects and impaired molecular cleanup. Results showed that “humans do not catch up on lost sleep.”


Glymphatic function in children and adolescents is an unexplored area. Yet we do know that the negative effects of sleep deprivation in youth are considerable.

Research shows sleep deprivation leaves children and adolescents with greater risks for negative changes in academics, social functioning, athletics, accidents, and injuries. Weight issues, mood changes, and substance abuse also increase with sleep deprivation. The next time your teenager decides to pull an all-nighter, help them understand their attention span, reaction time, and cognitive processing speeds will suffer, and how important sleep is to their academic and athletic success.

Athletics and Performance

Sleep deprivation affects other aspects of your life and health. Physical energy, athletic recovery, and performance are affected by even one night of partial sleep deprivation. Randomized controlled clinical trials with male adult cyclists showed that peak power output, motivation to perform, and blood pressure were adversely impacted by loss of sleep in one night.

A separate meta-analysis study involving athletes showed that sleep deprivation had a detrimental effect on speed, power, endurance, and strength. Experts discovered that when sleep deprivation was unavoidable due to travel, etc., exercise in the morning helped maintain performance outcomes. If the exercise occurred later in the day, athletic performance was worse in sleep derived participants.

Muscles and Hormones

Sleep deprivation also affects your muscles and hormones. You may have noticed that your ability to handle physical work throughout the day becomes more challenging when you don’t get a good night’s sleep.

In a recent clinical trial, researchers examined the effects of one night sleep deprivation and one normal night of sleep. Several hormone profiles and markers of muscle health were measured.

The results revealed that one night of sleep deprivation led to an 18% reduction in muscle protein synthesis, a 21% increase in cortisol levels, and a 24% decrease in testosterone levels. These effects are considered precursors that can contribute to metabolic dysfunction and weight gain when chronic sleep deprivation occurs.

Tips for A Good Night’s Sleep

Take proactive steps to improve your sleep quality and quantity. Avoid the temptation to stay up to watch a program or video, be on a device, or work endlessly into the night. While it may seem harmless or possible to push through, consistently making these lifestyle choices with limited sleep can gradually diminish your mood, memory, focus, and concentration, regardless of your genetics and family history.

Establish a consistent bedtime. Maintain consistent sleep and wake-up times. This regular schedule entrains your circadian clocks. Strive to maintain this routine as regularly as possible.

Schedule time in the evening to unwind and calm your racing mind. Whether it involves reading a (preferably paper) book, taking a warm bath, or going for a leisurely stroll, establish a routine of relaxing activities 1-2 hours before bedtime. Avoid the temptation to check emails, exercise, or engage in stressful activities or conversations before bed.

Nutritional Support Enhances Sleep

Customer favorites for basic sleep support include RelaxaMag and TriCal. More in-depth support includes Sleep Helper and Melatonin. More advanced support may include using PEA Ultra, Daily DHA, and PhosphatidylSerine at bedtime to provide essential fats required for brain repair activity and circadian rhythm functionality. Omega-3 oils DHA and EPA also support glymphatic function and clearance of metabolic waste in your brain.

Sleep disruption and deprivation are common concerns in today’s modern society. Work demands, shift work, personal habits, and changes in melatonin production and dysregulated circadian rhythms from artificial light and tech devices, and much more lead to inadequate sleep. Whether it’s a temper tantrum from your sleep-deprived child, or you falling asleep at your desk from staying up too late, sleep deprivation effects are great and small. Support your sleep to enhance your mental sharpness and physical energy today as well as your brain health for the future.

More resources may be found at

Minerals Needed for Quality Sleep

Get Back In Sync and Sleep Better In 7 Days

Omega-3 DHA and Phosphatidylserine: Two Are Better Than One

PEA: Natural Support for Nerves and Comfort

Theanine: Stress Management and Beyond

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