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The scientific community has differing opinions about how much sleep we need, but they do know one thing for sure: we need it to rejuvenate our bodies, grow muscle, repair tissue, and perform other essential tasks.
It turns out that we also require it to keep our brain healthy. Lack of sleep can cause a host of mental problems. Some are minor, like a bad mood or a day where we seem more absentminded than usual. But, if we deprive ourselves of shuteye for extended periods, we can do serious harm, and even become mentally ill.
In this article, we’ll discuss the effect it has on the brain, and what happens when sleep deprivation sets in.
Why Sleep is Good for the Brain
Why Sleep is Good for the Brain
Lack of sleep increases stress and can trigger depressive episodes. Ironically, being stressed out and depressed can make it harder to fall asleep, creating a vicious cycle of sleeplessness, anxiety, stress, and depression.
If you’re not getting enough rest and it’s affecting your mental health, try adopting a relaxing routine before bed. Whether it’s drinking a cup of herbal tea, reading or listening to soothing music, find something that puts you in a positive mood and prepares you for bed.
Have you seen the video of the boy who asks his temper tantrum-throwing toddler sister if she’s had a nap yet?
Even young children know that not getting adequate rest can put us in a bad mood. When you’re faced with sleep deprivation, even the smallest of life hiccups can make you feel like your life is spinning out of control. That unexpected flat tire is a lot easier to handle after a full night of rejuvenating rest.
Scientists believe that sleep serves to process, solidify and consolidate our memories. As we muddle through our days, we are bombarded with information to process. It allows our brains time to sift through all the information we’ve received and store what’s important in our long-term memory. Therefore, getting the right amount helps to keep our memory sharp.
If you’re having trouble remembering where you put your keys, don’t automatically assume that you’re in the early stages of Alzheimer’s Disease. You might just need a little more shuteye.
When you’re well-rested, it’s a lot easier to stay focused on tasks, especially at work. This is why smart tech companies are starting to have napping rooms. People who suffer from even just one night of sleep deprivation have more difficulty focusing on tasks and staying alert throughout the day.
We already discussed how sleep affects our ability to focus. Decision-making and focus are closely related, so it makes sense to conclude that lack of it also hinders our ability to make smart decisions. When we’re running on just a few hours of rest, we’re less able to focus on all aspects of a decision, and we may let the excess stress and anxiety we’re feeling influence our thinking.
Clears Your Mind
If you’ve ever had a rough day (who hasn’t, right?), you’ve probably thought to yourself that it will all be better in the morning. Getting a night of quality shuteye acts kind of like a reset button for your brain.
This happens on both a biological level as well as a mental level. Sleeping is a restorative process that cleanses our bodies of toxins, but it also helps clear the mind of the same.
How Sleep Affects Mental Health
Once upon a time, scientists thought that one of the side effects of mental illness was a lack of proper rest at night. They observed that people who were mentally ill didn’t get as much shuteye. Now, however, that theory has shifted.
Scientists now realize that lack of sleep is a key contributor to mental illness (even sleep induced psychosis). It turns out that deprivation may be one the causes of mental illness, not just a symptom of it. The reason is that when we deprive ourselves, our brain rewires itself to adapt to its sleep-deprived state.
To illustrate what that looks like in real life, Harvard scientists studied a group of students who had been awake for 35 hours straight to see how it affected their brains. They compared these students to the control group, which got a normal amount of rest. Both groups were shown a series of images ranging from every day, neutral images like baskets, to disturbing and violent pictures like burn victims.
The sleep-deprived students’ brains exhibited radically different behavior. The amygdala, or the part of the brain that experiences emotions, was sending signals to the brain that triggers fight-or-flight responses. In the control group, the amygdala was connecting instead to the prefrontal cortex, which is in charge of logic and decision-making.
The results of this study show us that when we get enough rest, we’re better at processing outside stimuli and distinguishing between real and perceived threats. However, when faced with deprivation, our brains have adapted to interpret more of our surroundings as threats, making irrational and even violent behavior more likely.
Symptoms of Sleep Deprivation
Naturally, if you’re not sleeping enough, you’ll feel sleepy. If you’ve had a couple of rough nights where you haven’t slept well, or you pulled a recent all-nighter, it’s natural that you’re going to feel drowsy the next day.
If these sleepless nights continue over a period of several days or weeks, you may notice that instead of feeling a little tired, you’ll be rundown or fatigued. When this happens, it’s going to take several consecutive nights of adequate rest to get back on track.
Lack of sleep affects our mood in a variety of ways. You might feel a little grumpier than normal, and the life’s minor inconveniences might seem like a bigger deal. Slight annoyances that you typically shrug off suddenly become battles of epic proportions.
Not resting adequately at night affects the function of our brain’s frontal lobe, which has been found to be linked to disorders like depression and anxiety. Left unchecked, symptoms of these disorders can worsen, even leading to suicidal tendencies.
No Sense of Focus
Sleep deprivation impairs your ability to focus, make decisions, and concentrate. Many of today’s headlines about fatal disasters can be tracked back to someone who was chronically sleep-deprived. Whether it’s an overworked doctor or an engineer at a nuclear power plant, if someone’s not paying attention lives are at risk.
Even losing just a bit of sleep each night can compromise your performance and affect your ability to do routine tasks. People who get less than seven hours nightly show the same impairment as someone who’s consumed alcohol.
Memory and Cognitive Problems
Not only does it help us build our long-term memory bank, but it’s also necessary for short-term memory and thinking. Most of the issues having to do with memory stem from the person not being able to focus properly. Since they’re not paying attention to what’s going on around them, they’re probably not going to remember events that happened even just moments ago.
Have you ever looked at your phone to check the time, only to pull it out of your pocket an instant later because you didn’t remember what the screen said? Maybe you’re distracted, or perhaps you need to get more rest.
One of the most dangerous cognitive issues associated with sleep deprivation is decreased judgment. Since the part of our brain that has to do with logic and reasoning isn’t as active, we tend to be more impulsive, take unnecessary risks, plan things poorly, and even focus on short-term rewards instead of longer-term consequences.
Disorientation, Hallucinations, and Paranoia
The manifestation of these symptoms isn’t as common, and they can be easily reversed by getting a night or two of rest. People who experience prolonged periods of limited bedtime can become disoriented. They may not register the passage of time, or even know what day it is. This can be accompanied by visual hallucinations and paranoid thinking that someone is out to get them.
Again, not everyone who experiences sleep deprivation will have these symptoms, but they’re certainly something to watch out for.
Sleep Disorders in Psychiatric Patients
A Harvard study found that in depressed children, 90% of them experienced some type of sleep problem. The conclusion is that those who don’t get adequate downtime in the sack are also more likely to suffer depression. Further, it turns out if it continues during the course of treatment, the patient is more likely to suffer a relapse.
Sleep deprivation is linked more strongly to depression, but there’s also a strong causal link to anxiety disorders, too. Plus, insomnia will continue to make the problem worse. For example, if you’re not sleeping enough hours, you’re more likely to have anxiety. But, feeling anxious will also prevent you from it.
People with bipolar swing between episodes of manic happiness and extreme depression. Often, manic episodes will happen after a prolonged period of limited sleep. Up to 69% to 99% of the time, people in a manic episode report sleeping less. This period is followed up by needing excessive sleeping hours as the bipolar patient transitions into a deep depression.
In addition to not being able to focus and pay attention, patients with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) also tend to have trouble falling asleep and staying unconscious. They may be fitful and also have restless leg syndrome or a sleep-related breathing issue. Again, these symptoms build on themselves, and doctors often have a hard time deducing whether a patient’s ADHD is affecting their sleeping, or if poor quality sleep is causing ADHD.
We already know that sleep deprivation leads to delusions, hallucinations, and paranoia. Similarly, patients who were awake for twenty-four hours started to experience symptoms that looked like schizophrenia. Scientists who conducted the study surmise that lack of it, even for just a couple of nights, causes chaos in the brain and makes it difficult to filter information properly.
Treatments and Interventions
Because so many health and mental challenges are linked to not sleeping properly, it’s tempting for patients to blame everything on lack of rest. However, doctors urge against playing the “blame game,” and suggest putting a positive spin on things and work with patients to go to bed feeling confident that they’ll rest easily.
Avoiding caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol, especially at night may help to improve the situation. Caffeine and nicotine are stimulants, and they’re more likely to keep you awake if they’re consumed in the afternoon. And while alcohol may make you drowsy, the effect doesn’t last long, and you’re more likely to sleep restlessly and wake up.
Regular exercise helps balance your stress and hormones. Plus, it’ll put you in a better mood and ease stress and anxiety, all helpful in getting rest. Doctors recommend exercising early in the day if you’re worried about being too wound up when it’s time for bed.
This mostly refers to your sleeping habits. By going to bed and waking up at the same time each day, you’ll be able to plan to get the right amount of bedtime, and you’ll have less trouble falling asleep at night and waking up in the morning. Be sure to keep your bedroom dark without lights and television. Having electronic devices in the room with lights and sounds (other than relaxing music or white noise) will disrupt the quality and quantity of your shuteye.
Meditation and breathing exercises help to relax you and prepare you for bedtime. If you’ve had a particularly stressful day, meditating can clear your mind of the day’s troubles and allow you to drift off without feeling troubled.
If natural treatments and lifestyle changes aren’t enough to do the trick and you’re experiencing serious brain disorders along with insomnia, a prescription may be in order, at least temporarily. Patients are often prescribed the following medication:
Depression: Lunesta or Prozac
Bipolar disorder: Sonata, Neurontin, or Gabitril
Anxiety: Xanax, Lyrica (strangely that’s a drug given to patients with fibromyalgia
ADHD: Ritalin (exercise caution as this is a methamphetamine and can actually cause insomnia)
Frequently Asked Questions
What is sleep deprivation psychosis?
This term refers to mental disorders associated with sleep deprivation. It involves losing touch with reality. Not sleeping deprives your brain of the time it needs to sort out the loads of information you encounter each day. Without adequate hours for your brain to sift through it, process it and filter out the unnecessary bits, it will struggle to distinguish between what’s real and what isn’t.
The effects are disorders like schizophrenia, paranoia, and even hallucinations.
Can insomnia be considered a mental illness?
Insomnia by itself is not considered a mental illness. However, it is a symptom of nearly every mental illness and/or phychosis. Patients with psychological disorders almost always report not sleeping well. Studies suggest that insomnia is, in fact, a leading cause of mental illnesses.
Most of us inherently know that lack of sleep the night before can lead to a day of feeling exhausted, unfocused and even grumpy or emotional. However, you might not have realized that just a couple of nights of deprivation can have serious consequences and be the root of a whole host of mental challenges.
If you’re suffering from anxiety, depression or ADHD, consult with your doctor about your sleeping habits. Getting the appropriate amount of rest each night could make a world of difference to your mental health.
Sources and References:
- Can a Lack of Sleep Cause Psychiatric Disorders? – scientificamerican.com
- 10 Things to Hate About Sleep Loss – webmd.com
- 11 Signs You're Sleep Deprived – health.com
Author: Jill Thompson
I've been self-employed for almost four years and I would not change it for anything! I believe that anyone can achieve their goals with the right attitude and determination.
I'm an avid traveler (25+ countries and counting) that loves to meet new people doing amazing things.
When I'm not researching for the Sleep Advisor, you can find me reading, running, traveling, golfing, or meditating.
I wish you the very best on your journey!