About the author: Samantha (Sam) Kent is a researcher for Sleep Help. Her favorite writing topic is how getting enough sleep can improve your life. Currently residing in Boise, Idaho, she sleeps in a California King bed, often with a cat on her face.
As a necessary biological function, everyone needs sleep. But, far too many people find themselves getting less than the recommended seven to eight full hours each day. The effects go well beyond drowsiness and irritability. Sleep deprivation changes the way the brain and body function, making those with chronic sleep deprivation susceptible to any number of detrimental illnesses and conditions.
How Sleep Affects the Brain
Though it is possible to push through sleep deprivation, it cannot be done without consequences. A tired brain is preprogrammed to slow down to help the body fall asleep. Neurons begin to send messages and signals at slower speeds, taking longer to process information. As neurons slow down, decision-making skills, reaction times, and reasoning abilities decrease. During sleep deprivation, the brain cannot react to outside stimuli at the same speed it normally does.
It’s not just cognitive skills that change within the brain during sleep deprivation. The brain alters how and when hormones are released. The loss of even one hour of sleep creates changes in appetite control and metabolism. Add to that the fact that the brain receives greater rewards for eating junk food when you’re tired than when you’re well rested, and you’ve got the perfect conditions for overeating and unwanted weight gain. For that reason, obesity and other detrimental health conditions, including diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease, that come along with obesity are often linked to sleep deprivation.
With all of the changes that sleep loss causes in the brain, it comes as no surprise that emotions and moods alter as well. Most people have experienced a bad night’s sleep and the accompanying irritability the next day. In a study conducted at the University of Pennsylvania, subjects restricted to only 4.5 hours of sleep for one week reported higher levels of stress and mental exhaustion as well increased anger and sadness, supporting the idea that moods change with sleep deprivation.
Significant changes in mood influence social abilities such as listening and empathy. Processing emotional information requires the use of the prefrontal area of the brain, which has a hard time functioning effectively without adequate sleep.
With increased levels of irritability, anger, and sadness, it’s no wonder that there is a corresponding reduction in empathy and understanding. Conflict with our emotional regulation gets in the way of how we connect with and understand others.
The Sleeplessness and Stress Cycle
The causes of sleep loss can vary but one common factor for many people is stress. However, as scientists try to study the relationship between sleep loss and stress, it’s hard to identify which comes first.
Stress, whether it comes from losing a job, a change in income, moving out of state, or from family circumstances, leaves many people wide awake late into the night.
The cycle strengthens as the stress no longer surrounds events or situations but sleep itself. Conversely, stress levels continue to increase as chronic sleep deprivation continues.
Better Mental Health Through Good Sleep
Reducing sleep deprivation and putting a stop to the sleep-stress relationship, and sleep loss in general, requires a combination of awareness of healthy sleep conditions and developing healthy sleep habits.
For the best sleep, the bedroom must become a sleep sanctuary where outside cares can dissipate and the body can relax. Conditions in the bedroom should be:
Comfortable: The mattress should be free from lumps or dips, support the preferred sleep position, and prevent the body from overheating. Breathable bedding made of cotton or linen allows the skin to breathe and prevents moisture from staying close to the body. If you are looking at getting a new mattress, The Sleep Help Institute has an online buying guide for mattresses.
Cool: At the onset of sleep, your body temperature naturally lowers. A bedroom kept between 60-68 degrees allows the body to comfortably maintain this lower temperature.
Dark: Light exposure is vital to healthy circadian rhythms, the natural 24-hour cycles the body follows that control the sleep-wake cycle. Sunlight lets the brain know that it’s time to be awake, while darkness triggers the release of sleep hormones like melatonin. A dark bedroom helps keep the body in sync. Light from computers, street lamps, or even the moon filtering through the window can disrupt our sleep. Blackout curtains or heavy drapes can help keep light pollution from entering the room.
Habits and behaviors also affect the quantity and quality of your sleep. For better sleep try:
A Consistent Bedtime: The body loves routine. A consistent bedtime helps establish strong circadian rhythms and allows your body to regularly time the release of sleep hormones.
A Bedtime Routine: A bedtime routine can help relieve stress before bed to put a stop to the sleep loss-stress cycle and trigger the release of sleep hormones. Meditation and yoga have both been shown to reduce stress, and they both can be performed as part of a regular bedtime routine with some methods and poses being suitable for use while lying in bed.
Avoiding Stimulants: The caffeine found in coffee, tea, soda, and energy drinks blocks the release of sleep hormones. Avoid stimulants at least four hours before bed to prevent sleep disruptions.
Regular Exercise: The benefits of exercise stretch far and include a better night’s rest. A body that’s physically tired is better prepared to fall asleep at night. However, avoid strenuous exercise three to four hours before bed so your body temperature can come down and the adrenaline can leave your system.
Turning Off Screens: Blue light, the kind given off my many electronic devices, has a more powerful effect on sleep than other kinds of light. It stimulates the brain, causing the brain to suppress the release of melatonin. Avoid using electronic devices at least two to three hours before bed.