6 ways lack of sleep can affect the brain

By: Patricia Evans

We live in a world that does not sleep. People are constantly wired and plugged in. People are overworked and fueled by caffeine. The surrounding buzzes 24/7. We live in a world that considers sleep is only for the weak.

As a result of the hurried lifestyle and technological advances, the way we live our lives has changed drastically. New habits were formed. More and more people are losing sleep and not caring about it. In the US, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared lack of sleep as a public health problem with an estimated 50 to 70 million adults having sleep or wakefulness disorders.

Sleep deprivation is known to contribute to heart, weight, and skin problems. It is also a huge contributor to brain problems that cover everything from memory to depression.

Let’s look at how sleep deprivation affects the human mind.

1. Out of focus

When you barely slept the night prior, you might as well be a walking zombie the following day. You seem to be neither here nor there and even a third cup of coffee before 10 a.m. is not going to make a difference.

Enough amount of restful sleep helps one think clearly and stay focused. On the other hand, sleep deprivation makes it harder for you to pay attention and stay alert. It also slows your reaction time.

Without focus, creativity and productivity at work and in school are compromised. Chances are you will sulk at your job and sleep behind your desk. Your abilities to do well in all realms of daily life are also impaired. And with slow reflexes and impaired alertness, a sleep-deprived individual is more at risk of road accidents. A poll by the National Sleep Foundation found that 60% of Americans have driven while feeling sleepy, while 37% admitted falling asleep behind the wheel.

2. Dangers of memory loss

Poor quality of sleep causes memory loss and forgetfulness. During sleep, the brain processes information and stores them as memories. Brain waves transfer memories from the hippocampus to the prefrontal cortex where long-term memories are stored. However, when one is deprived of sleep, memories stay stuck in the hippocampus and do not reach storage. The result is forgetfulness. The quality of sleep also tends to deteriorate as we get older, which also explains why older people are more forgetful.

Lack of sleep also impacts negatively on academic performance. The night before an exam, students cram to go over their lectures and sacrifice sleep. And since the brain didn’t have enough time to process the information, the lectures don’t find their way to the memory bank. Cognitive processes are compromised. A 2014 assessment of American college students found that only 44% of students felt rested for 3 to 5 days, while only 9% of students reported that they did not have a problem with daytime sleepiness.

3. Emotions run high

Among the effects of sleep deprivation are irrational emotional responses. There are days when you feel like punching someone in the face due to the smallest inconveniences. This is because sleep-deprived individuals experience greater stress and are more easily angered.

The part of the brain called the amygdala is an individual’s emotional control center. If a person is deprived of quality sleep, activity levels of the amygdala are heightened. In short, the brain overreacts to negative occurrences and is unable to moderate its response. In these situations, some sort of personality change is evident in a sleep-deprived individual. As a result, even just the simplest of conflicts could get the person to fly into a temper.

4. Feeding on depression

Sleep loss and depression are closely linked to one another. They keep feeding on each other. Insomnia, one of the most common sleep orders globally, is a symptom of clinical depression.

Depression is a mood disorder that causes one to feel sad, helpless or hopeless. Intense feelings of sadness over long periods can keep one from living a normal life. Sleep is important in this instance because it puts the mind to a restorative state. Disrupted or inadequate sleep leads to tensed emotions and irritability. This may also lead to fatigue, which in the long run will keep you from functioning normally.

When you lack sleep, your emotions are heightened and mood swings become more frequent. Over long periods, these may lead to depression. And when you’re depressed, you find it hard to sleep and stay asleep which may lead to insomnia. This is a repetitive cycle and the two disorders will just keep on feeding on each other if they remain untreated.

5. Blurring of judgement

Inadequate sleep clouds one’s reasoning and judgement, which is crucial in the workplace and in fulfilling daily functions. A study also showed that sleep deprivation can also have an impact in one’s moral compass. This is particularly crucial for people who are in positions of responsibility such as medical professionals, judges, police, and soldiers. The inability to integrate emotion and cognition impairs moral judgement.

6. Unquenchable cravings

When you can’t sleep at 2 a.m., what does your instinct tell you? Right. You open the refrigerator. You just can’t seem to fight the cravings, can you? A study found that sleep deprivation fuel one’s cravings in two ways: first, several brain areas are unable to evaluate or rank food based on what it wants, and second, a heightened amygdala is not able to control the cravings for food. And this is the reason why lack of sleep is often associated with obesity and weight gain.

Adequate amount of quality sleep does more than just keep the body refreshed. It helps keep the mind refreshed, alert, energized, focused, and able to process information. It may seem like being two or three hours short of sleep is a small thing for you but not for your brain that functions even when your body is rested.

Photo Source: Dentelle Fleurs

Editor: Dr. Francesca Vazquez

Author Bio:

Patricia is an Interior Designer, Residential Designer, Art Crafter, DIYer and a full time mother. She writes about interior decorating, she loves working with shapes, shades and spaces. She is also into green and simple living, health and she loves cooking and having tea. She's a contributor at Huffington, you can check here works here: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/author/patricia-evans or follow her on twitter at @patevans016

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