How Sleep Deprivation Impairs your Mind, Moods, Memory and Impulses

by Dr. Alex Dimitriu

Pioneering sleep scientist William Dement once called sleep deprivation “the most common brain impairment.” The research is proving him right.

Authors of the latest sleep study, just published (April 2021) in the journal Nature Communications, find that “persistent” sleep deprivation during the midlife years – 50s, 60s, up to age 70 – is associated with a 30 percent greater chance for developing dementia.  And this increase is independent of other sociodemographic, physical, behavioral, and mental health variables, according to the researchers.

The findings add supporting evidence to results of a 2018 study led by National Institutes of Health investigators who found that impaired sleep led to a build-up of metabolic waste in the brain, namely an increase in the protein beta-amyloid, which plays a role in Alzheimer’s disease.

Even more disconcerting is that these reports are only the latest in a series of studies, conducted during the past 15 years, linking chronic sleep deprivation with a variety of physical, mental, and psychological symptoms.

These include mood shifts and increased irritability; concentration and attention problems; failures in judgment and executive decision-making; physiological changes, such as impairments in brain function and hormone production, reduced immunity protection from disease, overstimulated appetite and weight gain, higher risk for diabetes, an overactive nervous system, chronic fatigue – even earlier death; and a range of psychiatric disorders, including elevated anxiety, depression, and obsessive-compulsiveness.

In fact, research appearing in a 2020 edition of Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging suggests loss of just a half night of shut-eye decreases rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, which is important to memory consolidation, and is linked to reduced activity in a portion of the brain related to emotion control.

Those findings are in line with a 2016 eLife study indicating that repeated sleep deprivation interferes with the connectivity of brain neurons involved in memory and learning.  An earlier study by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine determined that chronic lack of sleep disrupts or slows a person’s ability to resolve moral dilemmas or make moral judgments.


Sleep Not an Extravagance, But a Necessity

Our high-tech, fast-paced, achievement-demanding society has come to view sleep as an extravagance, an impingement on our time and our lifestyle.  It is anything but.  Sufficient amounts of sleep – defined as seven hours to eight hours for the average adult and about nine hours for high-schoolers and college-age students – are critical to overall good health and proper brain function.

In the book Sleep for Success, three Cornell University researchers define sleep deprivation as a failure to “meet [one’s] personal need for sleep,” and include among the rank-and-file of the sleep-deprived those who have “difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, waking too early, or having poor sleep quality.”

Indeed, we are a sleep-deprived nation.

Impaired sleep is reaching epidemic proportions; statistics bear this out.  The national Sleep Foundation estimates about a third of adults in the United States fail to sleep the required number of hours. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the number is closer to 35 percent.  According to the online SleepAdvisor,

Americans in the early 1940s were averaging 7.9 hours of sleep per night; this dropped to 6.8 hours in 2013 – a decrease of 13 percent.  Meanwhile, experts equate lack of sleep to alcohol intoxication, saying sleep deprivation is a major cause of car crashes.  And, as reported by Fortune Magazine, a 2016 study by RAND Europe found that sleep insufficiency among U.S. workers costs the economy in excess of $411 billion annually.


So, Why Are We Not Sleeping?

The causes of impaired sleep are multiple, ranging from musculoskeletal pain and obstructive sleep apnea, which is a breathing disorder, to insomnia.  Insomnia is linked to a variety of cognitive and psychiatric issues, including depression as well as anxiety, bipolar, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorders.

In many instances, the issue is not medically related at all, but simply a failure to consider sleep all that important and to budget enough time for it because of workload or lifestyle.

Some teens and adults may even view “lying in bed too much” as a source of weight gain.

Yet the opposite is true.  Scientists have determined that sleep deprivation disrupts the production of hormones regulating appetite, causing a person to overeat and indulge in “junk” foods high in carbohydrates.  They report a 50 percent increase in the risk of becoming obese among those who sleep five or fewer hours per night.

Sleep deprivation even feeds into the current diabetes epidemic in this country.  After one week of deprived sleep, otherwise healthy young men showed evidence of being in a pre-diabetic state, according to a University of Chicago study.


What’s the Answer?

The solution to sleep deprivation may be as easy as working sleep time into that busy daily schedule.  Believing weekends provide the opportunity to “catch up” on sleep lost during the week is wrong thinking.

A 2019 study in Current Biology indicates that efforts at “recovery” sleep on Saturdays and Sundays not only fails to reverse some of the negative metabolic changes occurring during sleep-deprived weekdays but interferes with – and resets — the body’s circadian clock when a person returns to his or her lack-of-sleep ways during the week.

For those who have trouble falling asleep, staying asleep or waking too frequently and too early, here are some tips:

  • Stick to a regular sleep schedule. Go to bed and get up at the same time every day.
  • Stop constantly checking the time when you are in bed and worrying about falling sleep. The anxiety only increases your difficulties. Put a cloth over the clock on your nightstand, close your eyes, turn off your mind. Your sleepy brain will take it from there.
  • Improve your sleep hygiene. You know the drill: darken the room, lower the temperature, move the television out of the bedroom, put the mobile phone where you cannot see it, and, yes, if necessary, buy a new mattress.
  • Avoid alcohol consumption and caffeinated drinks several hours before bedtime.
  • Depend on natural rather than medicated sleep. Some experts contend that use of sleeping pills is associated with higher risks for mortality and cancer.
  • Finally, if you suspect depression, abnormal anxiety, or other mental issue to be the culprit for lack of sleep, contact a psychiatrist or sleep medicine specialist.

Remember: sleep is essential.  Your health – and your brain — depend on it.

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