If you’ve ever spent a night tossing and turning, you already know how you’ll feel the next day – tired, cranky, and out of sorts. Not getting the recommended 7 – 9 hours of sleep per night does more than give you brain fog and make you feel groggy and grumpy. The long-term effects of sleep deprivation can have a detrimental impact on your brain, overall mental state, and cognitive functioning. In fact, the associated effects of sleep deprivation on your brain are regarded among the most dangerous.
Sleep plays a vital role in optimal cognitive functioning, learning, and memory, with the brain activity patterns associated with newly acquired information being “replayed” during certain stages of sleep to consolidate it. During sleep, your brain forms important connections that help you process and remember new information. Sleep also embeds the things that you have learned and experienced over the course of the day into your short-term memory. A lack of sleep negatively impacts various brain functions, including your short- and long-term memory, and your ability to filter out, process, and retain information. Ultimately resulting in memory issues.
As sleep deprivation prevents your brain cells from functioning optimally, not getting the recommended amount of sleep you need to function at your best makes it difficult for your brain cells to communicate effectively. This, in turn, can lead to temporary mental lapses which further impairs your memory.
A sufficient amount of sleep is necessary for optimal learning to take place. Sleep deprivation can affect your ability to learn in two ways; A lack of sleep impairs your ability to focus, making it incredibly difficult for your brain to pick up and retain any information, which ultimately impairs your ability to learn efficiently. Secondly, as mentioned above, sleep deprivation affects your memory and your ability to make new memories. Memory is essential for learning to take place.
Besides memory and learning, findings suggest that a lack of sleep has the potential to interfere with the ability of neurons in your brain to encode information and translate visual input into conscious thought. This has a profound effect on your visual perception. An example of this is when a sleep-deprived driver sees a pedestrian stepping in front of his/her car. It may take longer for the driver to realize what he or she is seeing because the very act of seeing the pedestrian slows down in the driver’s overtired brain.
One of the biggest dangers of sleep deprivation is slowed reaction time and impaired alertness. The negative impact of sleep deprivation on these crucial functions has been linked to an increased risk of car accidents as well as injuries from other causes. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration conservatively estimates that at least 100,000 crashes reported to police each year are due to driver fatigue. Other estimates put that number at approximately 1 million – 20% of all crashes. The truth is, you don’t need to physically fall asleep at the wheel for you to be a danger to both yourself and other drivers. The drowsiness and impaired alertness associated with a lack of sleep alone can be equally as dangerous as driving drunk. In fact, it is reported that driving while tired is like driving with a blood alcohol level of .08% – Which is over the legal limit in many states.
Sleep deprivation also significantly effects your ability to concentrate, think clearly, and focus. A lack of sleep can impair what is known as “selective attention”. Selective attention is your ability to focus on specific information when other things are occurring at the same time. As a result, you are more likely to be forgetful, unfocussed, and get distracted easily. Insufficient sleep also greatly impairs your decision making and problem-solving skills as well as your level of concentration throughout the day and degree of creativity.
Sleep is essential for maintaining good overall brain health. The brain does most of its ‘housekeeping’ while we sleep. One ‘housekeeping’ duty that is of particular importance – waste disposal – is acutely sensitive to a lack of sleep. The brain disposes of its waste via the glymphatic system, which is thought to consist of a network of vessels that runs alongside blood vessels in the scalp. The glymphatic system is responsible for draining waste-filled cerebrospinal fluid from the organ. Waste products cleared away by this system include insoluble clumps of misfolded proteins which are deposited in the brain. These waste product deposits occur as a normal part of the aging process, as well as various neurodegenerative diseases.
One of these neurodegenerative diseases is Alzheimer’s disease which involves the deposition of two such proteins: Amyloid-beta, which aggregates to form plaque around your brain cells, and tau, which forms tangles inside your brain cells. As the glymphatic system works at its best while we sleep (getting rid of all the waste depositions), a lack of sleep and poor sleep ‘hygiene’ significantly reduces the efficiency of the brain’s waste disposal system. This means that all the insoluble protein clumps that would normally be cleared away by the glymphatic system remains in place. If you endure prolonged periods of sleep deprivation, these insoluble protein clumps can accumulate to toxic levels, which, in turn, can drastically worsen your sleeping difficulties, ultimately resulting in a vicious cycle. Beside Alzheimer’s disease, a lack of sleep is associated with various other neurodegenerative diseases and psychiatric disorders.
Sleep deprivation has a detrimental effect on your mental abilities, overall well-being (mentally, emotionally, and physically), as well as your mood (resulting in noticeable mood changes). Not getting enough sleep can make you irritable, moody, emotional, and quick-tempered. Chronic sleep deprivation has a more dramatic effect on your mood and mental state and can result in heightened levels of stress, as well as lessen your ability to cope with stress. If left untreated, chronic sleep deprivation may lead to long-term mood and mental health disorders like depression and anxiety.
Chronic sleep deprivation affects the prefrontal cortex of your brain which handles reasoning. It also slows down your thought processes. This hampers your ability to perform tasks that require logical reasoning or complex thought. A lack of sleep also impairs your judgement, significantly affecting your ability to make decisions as you are unable to effectively assess a situation or distinguish between right and wrong.
Sleep deprivation further affects the amygdala of the brain which deals with emotion. A study published in 2009 showed that sleep deprivation alters functional connections between the prefrontal cortex and the brain’s reward- and emotion-processing centers, impairing our so-called executive functions. As a result, our emotional responses are heightened, we become hypersensitive to rewarding stimuli, and we start acting irrationally. Without sleep, we essentially become emotionally irrational and the emotional centers of our brain dramatically overreacts to various situations and experiences.
“When we’re sleep deprived, it’s really as if the brain is reverting to more primitive behavior, regressing in terms of the control humans normally have over their emotions,” – Researcher Matthew Walker, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Berkeley.
Beyond our heightened emotional response, a lack of sleep has the ability to influence/affect how we interact, assess, and respond to the world around us as well as our environment. According to research conducted by senior study author Dr. Itzhak Fried, a professor of neurosurgery at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), starving the body of sleep (chronic sleep deprivation) robs the neurons in your brain of the ability to function properly and optimally. This paves the way for cognitive lapses in how we perceive and react to the world around us.
At a more advanced level, chronic sleep deprivation can over-stimulate parts of the brain and even lead to permanent brain damage, according to a report on sleep deprivation among students published by The Guardian. This is primarily due to the brain’s ‘neural plasticity’, which is the brain’s ability to adapt to new situations. If the brain is forced to operate in a different state on a regular basis (due to chronic sleep deprivation), it permanently alters itself, resulting in permanent changes and even damage.
If the effects on your brain caused by a lack of sleep is left untreated, it can develop into a chronic way of life which will ultimately impact various aspects of both your personal and professional life.