The Antioxidant Benefits of Sleep ft. OTHER Vanessa Hill!
Why do we sleep? We know that sleep plays a role in learning and memory, but that doesn't really explain why sleep evolved. A lesser known theory, that sleep serves a purpose of flushing out free radicals (aka "Reactive Oxygen Species") is gaining traction after some research by Vanessa Hill and colleagues at Columbia University found that sleep has antioxidant benefits.
My name is Vanessa Hill, I create this channel, BrainCraft and for a second, I want you to
imagine you're me.
I'm really interested in sleep and I've made a bunch of videos on sleep science, health
I live in NYC, I have a masters degree and occasionally my mind wanders and I think about
getting a PhD.
I've actually googled doing this at Columbia a few times.
And here's where it gets weird.
I started getting Google Alerts about a Vanessa Hill, a science PhD student at Columbia researching
We even have the same middle name.
These emails kept coming and I found out she graduated and published a paper on how sleep
can have antioxidant benefits.
To make it weirder, I emailed her and asked if we could meet up.
You'll never believe where we're going.
It's nice to meet you.
It's nice to meet you!
How are you?
I'm good, how are you?
Thank you for letting us come into your life.
It's a little strange.
And this is the other Vanessa M Hill - who finished her PhD at Columbia earlier this
Apart from being name twins, I really wanted to meet her because her work seems fascinating.
She researched sleep, setting out to determine why do we sleep?
So that really is the million dollar question
And it's a question that we still can't really answer.
Which is odd/nuts/bananas considering we spend around a third of our lives asleep.
If you think about it, it's a pretty bizarre behaviour, right?
Because when an animal is sleeping it's totally vulnerable, it's exposed, you wouldn't
think that would necessarily be beneficial to the animal.
And so that suggests that sleep must fulfill some process that's so fundamental to animal
life that it has evolved in all these different animal species.
Right now, we do know that sleep plays a crucial role in learning and memory.
But that doesn't explain why we sleep
We don't know whether we needed learning and memory and that's why sleep evolved,
you know, if that was the pushing force behind the evolution of sleep behaviour, or did sleep
evolve for some other reason and learning and memory were conveniently placed into that
sleep state time.
The other thing that learning and memory doesn't explain is the link between less sleep and
There's a huge amount of correlational evidence that people who are chronically sleep restricted,
meaning they sleep more than six hours per night, they tend to develop diseases like
diabetes, heart disease, obesity, Alzheimer's, more often than the average person.
It suggests that sleep has a role in our overall health.
There's this idea that there might be some underlying core function of sleep on the cellular
So Vanessa actually used fruit flies that are short sleepers as a model to study sleep.
And so I thought, of course, flies that don't sleep enough, they'll be sick.
And I'll get out of here quickly with my PhD and be on my way.
And it took actually a few years... there didn't actually have an immunity defect,
at least not in the way I expected.
Well that's more interesting in a way!
It was very interesting.
What Vanessa eventually found was that sleep has antioxidant benefits.
But to understand how, first we to define what are antioxidants?
You've probably seen health food commercials like this one, where a cyclops antioxidant
hammers free radicals "humongous, hulky free radical-hammering antioxidants" As
well as antioxidants, you hear this term "free radicals" all the time.
So free radicals are molecules that are natural byproducts of energy . And in biology, free
radicals have another name, a three letter acronym, which we're going to need to remember
for the next minute or so.
Most of these molecules that are free radicals, most of them are oxygen containing.
So we actually call them, more often in biology, Reactive Oxygen Species.
They will react with our proteins, our lipids, our DNA in our body and sort of wreak havoc
in a cell.
Now these free radicals or reactive oxygen species wreak havoc because they have a chemical
The antioxidants in our body are there to essentially neutralise reactive oxygen species.
That's why we need antioxidants, because antioxidants are very good at donating electrons
to these greedy reactive oxygen species, that are going around trying to rip electrons from
where ever they can find.
So what happens if we have too many of these in our body?
Yeah so if we have too many Reactive Oxygen Species in our body, then what happens is
that it will cause what's called oxidative damage.
Oxidative damage can eventually lead to death in people... or flies - had you forgotten
about the short sleeping fruit flies?
When Vanessa gave them a substance containing more reactive oxygen species they dropped
It told me they had perhaps a build up of reactive oxygen species in their body.
And that's sort of how we got to our eventual conclusion that sleep might serve some antioxidant
function in the brain.
There is one more question to ask of the flies - if they sleep more, do they have better
And so we answered that question by inducing sleep in fruit flies.
These flies that slept more than usual were actually resistant to oxidative stress, which
suggests that they had, perhaps, fewer reactive oxygen species, or better antioxidant activity.
Now it's important to maintain a balance between free radicals and antioxidants.
And Vanessa's findings support a theory by this scientist Reimund in 1994, that free
radicals accumulate in the brain while we're awake, and sleep allows from them to clear.
So there's this build up of ROS in the brain, while we're awake, and this man hypothesized
that perhaps sleep provides an opportunity when our brain is not as active, for the brain
to clear out those reactive oxygen species before we enter a state of oxidative stress.
Recently there's been a lot of good evidence published that suggests that during there
is a greater flow of cerebrospinal fluid in the brain that helps to flush out toxins.
And so we know that it helps to flush out protein buildup in the brain, and so it's
very possible that it also helps to flush out any accumulation of ROS.
Now, just in case you'd forgotten about the "humongous, hulky free radical-hammering
antioxidant" the last thing I wanted to know is - What's the deal with antioxidant
I brought you some high in antioxidant juice.
Is this better than sleep?
So, no is the short answer.
People seem to think that we get antioxidants from food, and we do, but and I don't want
to burst the antioxidant bubble here - You can!
You're qualified I think.
- it's great to have a balanced diet with foods that are rich in antioxidants, but the
majority of the antioxidants that our body relies on to neutralise reactive oxygen species,
we produce them naturally, within our own bodies.
I guess you can lay off $8 juices.
Supplementing antioxidants is not going to replace sleep.
So all in all, one Vanessa M Hill, PhD did 7 years of research to discover that sleep
has antioxidant benefits.
And then, after months of Google Alerts and a day of hanging out, another Vanessa M Hill
swooped in and made this video for you, to reinforce that sleep is super duper important
and maybe, right now, you should go and catch some shut eye.
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