Sleep Deprivation and its Weird Effects on the Mind and Body

We’ve all been there before: scrolling through social media apps as the late evening turns into early morning, or watching “just one more episode” to see what happens next in the show, fighting the urge to go to let yourself succumb to the sleep you know you so desperately need.  These situations are rather common, of course, but when they become a habit, they can lead to a slew of problems.

Sleep deprivation refers to when a person gets less sleep than his or her body needs to feel awake and alert.  If you’ve been up too late on tumblr, watching Netflix, or talking to a friend, you know that when your alarm goes off for work or school, you’re not going to be feeling too great.  And it’s about more than just hours of sleep; the quality of sleep matters too because it needs to actually be restorative. According to information on the National Sleep Foundation’s website, our bodies progress through four stages of sleep, starting with light sleep. Then the brainwaves slow, and the heart rate and temperature drop.  Next, we fall into a deep sleep where we become harder to wake up. And finally, we reach REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, which is when we dream. This fourth stage “plays an important role in learning and memory function.”

The effects of not reaching all the stages of sleep and the resulting sleep deprivation are important because they impact the mind and body in quite a few different ways.  It might be kind of weird to think that sleep has such a significant impact on us, but listed below are some key ways that it does.

Increased risk of physical illness

The immune system is the collection of cells and organs in our bodies that protect against disease, and to function properly, it requires a sort of maintenance.  Sleep provides such maintenance. When we don’t sleep, our bodies don’t produce a type of protective protein called cytokines needed for the immune system to do its job.  The cytokines fight infection. Hence, without adequate sleep, we may get sick more easily. (Mayo Clinic) It can also cause recovering from illnesses that we already have to take longer, increase our risk of chronic illnesses, and even lead to respiratory diseases. (Medical News Today)  It makes sense, too. How can anyone hope to stay healthy if they don’t stop and rest?

Higher risk of obesity and weight gain

When we don’t get a sufficient amount of sleep, getting through the day might seem overwhelming and exhausting, so exercising most likely isn’t on the top of our lists.  But prolonged periods without enough physical activity mean we’re taking in more calories than we burn, leading to weight gain. The risk for obesity is even more extreme when we consider that sleep deprivation actually causes the hunger-regulating hormone levels to fluctuate, so we crave more foods –carbohydrates in particular.  Additionally, insulin (which controls blood sugar levels and promotes fat storage in high amounts) increases when we run low on sleep. (Healthline)

More trouble regulating emotions

Proper sleep hygiene is an essential part of being mentally healthy, too, especially when we consider that our emotions are largely reliant on it.  When we can’t sleep at night, it’s incredibly frustrating. We may be lying awake staring at the ceiling, tossing and turning, or counting sheep in a desperate attempt to get some shut-eye, and the frustration it causes carries over into the next morning.  Insomnia and depression also feed off one another (Web MD). When our negative thoughts or worries chase each other around our subconscious all night, as they do in those with depression, we feel worse. This, in turn, adds to the insomnia. Sleep deprivation could also trigger mania in those who are bipolar; this mood disorder is known for its grand fluctuations in energy and extremes is also marked by trouble with emotional regulation.

Lowered ability to focus

It’s definitely harder to pay attention and concentrate after pulling an all-nighter.  We become easily distracted, our focus shifting from one thing to another, probably because we’re thinking about how tired we are in the first place.  It can feel as though our brains are trying to catch up on the sleep it missed while we’re still supposed to be awake and functioning. But there’s more going on in the brain than just that; sleep allows us to learn and form memories by way of the brain ripples that occur during its deepest stage (Web MD).  So when we sleep less, we’re more prone to forgetfulness and other learning difficulties.

Increased chance of motor vehicle and related accidents

Not only can fatigue lead to distractedness and difficulting concentrating on the road, but it can also slow reaction time as much as driving drunk.  In the worst-case scenarios, a driver will fall asleep at the wheel. And even if that doesn’t happen, he or she is still more likely to make poor driving choices –rolling through stop signs, blowing red lights, merging without looking.  According to the CDC website, driving drowsy is responsible for up to 6000 fatal car accidents each year.  It is extremely dangerous and should be avoided at all costs.

Getting an appropriate amount of sleep is important, to say the very least.  Teenagers typically need eight to ten hours of sleep a night and adults need seven to nine.  Without reaching those sleep goals, you might find yourself experiencing some of the problems described above.

If you can’t fall asleep, perhaps try some melatonin.  If you’re tossing and turning for more than twenty minutes, get up for a short amount of time before getting back in bed again.  A bedtime routine (washing up, turning off screens, reading a book, and taking meds if necessary) can be another useful way to battle insomnia.  Or if you fight the urge to go to sleep because you want to keep doing whatever it is that you’re doing, remembering the negative impact of doing so might persuade you to get to bed a little bit earlier.

 

Citations:

“Can Lack of Sleep Make You Sick?” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 28 Nov. 2018, https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/insomnia/expert-answers/lack-of-sleep/faq-20057757.

Cherney, Stephanie Watson and Kristeen. “11 Effects of Sleep Deprivation on Your Body.” Healthline, Healthline Media, 1 May 2019, https://www.healthline.com/health/sleep-deprivation/effects-on-body#7.

“Drowsy Driving: Asleep at the Wheel | Features | CDC.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, https://www.cdc.gov/features/dsdrowsydriving/index.html.

FNP, Kathleen Davis. “Sleep Deprivation: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment.” Medical News Today, MediLexicon International, 25 Jan. 2018, https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/307334.php.

Peri, Camille. “10 Surprising Effects of Lack of Sleep.” WebMD, WebMD, https://www.webmd.com/sleep-disorders/features/10-results-sleep-loss#1.

“Understanding Sleep Cycles.” Sleep.org, https://www.sleep.org/articles/what-happens-during-sleep/.

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