How Does Lack of Sleep Affect the Brain

A lady can not sleep
Sleep and mental health

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Lack of Sleep Affects the Brain

In a world where everyone has to work hard to maintain a proper balance in their job and social life, many think of sleep as a luxury rather than a necessity. You could have occasionally heard people pride themselves in having no time to sleep because little sleep is usually associated with productivity.

Nevertheless, enough sleep is essential: the effects of sleep deprivation on the brain can be dangerous. Since sleep deprivation has detrimental effects, your brain will rebel by functioning poorly when it doesn't receive adequate rest. 

What, then, are the psychological effects of sleep deprivation?

Poor Concentration

To know how sleep affects the brain, let’s focus on its purpose. During sleep, your body repairs and restores itself. The energy builds up and is stored for when you wake up. Enough sleep ensures you stay alert and can concentrate on your activities. 

Studies show that getting enough sleep enhances a person's ability to perform daily tasks with minimal errors. Also, people with enough sleep perform better in cognitive tests than sleep-deprived ones.

The impact of sleep deprivation can include a reduced ability to concentrate, which may lead to difficulty performing even the most basic cognitive functions

When you fail to get the needed hours of sleep, you also usually experience drowsiness that may affect your daily performance.

Memory Problems

How does sleep deprivation affect the brain in terms of memory? 

In fact, sleep deprivation does lead to memory problems causing decreased ability to learn and retain information.

This symptom can occur in the long term or short term. 

  • Short-term memory loss means you cannot immediately remember things you need to recall. 
  • Long-term memory loss leads to conditions such as dementia.

While you sleep, you go through the phases of rapid and non-rapid eye movement. During these stages, brain waves transfer memories from the hippocampus, where they are temporarily stored, to the prefrontal cortex for long-term memory. 

Sleep deprivation effects on the brain include disrupted processes of memory consolidation between the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus, which leads to forgetfulness. 

A consistent and uninterrupted sleep schedule would help restore your brain's ability to form, retain and consolidate memories.

Heightened Emotional Reactivity  

The amygdala is a brain region responsible for your emotions. It also works with the prefrontal cortex, the part of your brain responsible for rational thinking. For the amygdala to function correctly, it needs adequate sleep.

You may have witnessed how sleep loss causes one to lash out in anger or frustration — it is also one of the lack of sleep effectsStudies reveal that when the amygdala is sleep deprived, it goes into overdrive and overrides the prefrontal cortex.

When the amygdala becomes hyperactive, the prefrontal cortex stops functioning, reducing your reasoning ability. An irrational individual tends to overreact to the slightest emotional stimuli around them.

Adequate and uninterrupted sleep will ensure that your amygdala and prefrontal cortex function correctly and prevent unwanted insomnia effects. This way, getting sleep when needed ensures you have better control of your emotions despite the triggers in your environment.

A lady trying to sleep
Sleep apnea

Sleep Apnea

Lack of oxygen leads to the inability to sleep. A study by the University of Alberta proves that enough oxygen promotes a deep state of sleep that helps prevent brain damage. During this deep state of sleep, the brain clears toxins accumulated during the day and enhances proper memory consolidation.

However, when you are sleep-deprived because you lack oxygen, you develop a condition known as sleep apnea. Sleep apnea is among the common sleep deprivation effects. It causes interrupted sleep due to intervals where the individual cannot breathe.

Therefore, an individual with sleep apnea will have cognitive impairment symptoms such as: 

  • reduced focus
  • forgetfulness, 
  • frustration, 
  • and irritability. 

Such individuals tend to be sleepy during the day.

Available Treatment Options

First-line treatment for sleep deprivation incorporates life changes specific to every affected individual. 

These lifestyle changes include: 

Medications can be prescribed if sleep cycles have become significantly impaired with time.

The main reason for trying lifestyle changes first is because of the nature of sleep deprivation. 

For example, while insomnia means the inability to sleep when all the factors contribute to rest and relaxation, sleep-deprived people do not allow themselves to have enough sleep for some reason, be it night shifts, obsession with some activities, or anything else. 

However, both insomnia and sleep deprivation lead to the same lack of sleep effects on the brain.

Whatever sleep issue you face, the first thing to do is consult a healthcare provider. 

A doctor will: 

  • assess your symptoms, 
  • identify the causes of your condition, 
  • and check for underlying health problems that may also cause insomnia or sleep deprivation. 

These may include: 

  • sleep apnea, 
  • anxiety
  • thyroid problems, and others.

Depending on the severity of the condition, your doctor may recommend: 

  • medications, 
  • over-the-counter supplements, 
  • psychotherapy, 
  • light therapy, 
  • lifestyle modifications, 
  • or a combination of several methods.

Usually, patients remain under guidance until they get the recommended 7 to 9 hours of sleep regularly.

Pharmacological Treatment of Insomnia

The most commonly prescribed medications for insomnia are sedative-hypnotics. These medicines depress the central nervous system and reduce the brain’s sensitivity to different sensory inputs. 

They also affect the activity of the limbic system — a part of the brain that controls our emotions and behaviors. All this contributes to relaxation and allows a person to have a more restful sleep.

A person with Sleeping pills
Some people take medication for sleeping.

The group of sedative-hypnotics involves several other categories. 

For example, benzodiazepines like Halcion (triazolam) are commonly used for insomnia treatment but have high risks for dependency. 

Non-benzodiazepine medications like Ambien (zolpidem) and Sonata (zaleplon), on the other hand, are better tolerated and have fewer side effects.

Apart from the above drugs, doctors may prescribe certain antidepressants and over-the-counter medications for insomnia treatment. 

The OTC drugs include: 

  • antihistamines, 
  • melatonin, 
  • and herbal supplements.

The choice of the best sleeping pills is made individually, based on the patient’s symptoms, health history, and medication history. It also depends on the required duration of treatment. In addition, the medication choice or dosage can be adjusted with time according to the person’s response to treatment.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Medication or lifestyle changes alone cannot always eliminate the problem, be it insomnia or sleep deprivation. Depression, anxiety, ruminative thoughts, and other factors can lead to poor sleep quality or inadequate sleep.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) focuses on identifying negative and irrational thinking patterns, beliefs, and behaviors and modifying them into positive ones. 

A CBT therapist helps an individual to find the link between: 

  • thoughts, 
  • emotions
  • and behaviors and change it. 

Consequently, therapists providing cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) help to identify what thoughts and emotions impact the amount and quality of sleep and help to change that situation. 

A therapist may use cognitive restructuring (modification of unhelpful repetitive thoughts), recommend relaxation techniques, and tell about emotional regulation and the connection between mental and physical health. 

CBT proved to be effective for insomnia, and it can bring even better results compared to pharmacological treatment.

In Conclusion

The above points are just a few effects of sleep deprivation. A person lacking sleep may also experience impulsiveness, mood swings, poor decision-making, and other symptoms that impair cognition and make daily functioning more challenging. 

Enough sleep will ensure you maintain your cognitive health as your brain receives the rest it needs. And if you find it difficult to manage your sleep schedule, don’t hesitate to consult a sleep professional.

Author: Dr. Umar Javed, MBBS, is a licensed physician specializing in mental healthcare. He helps create the most up-to-date, science-backed, and detailed patient information for the online mental health clinic MEDvidi, using his expertise and research skills. His particular area of interest and research includes the most common mental health problems facing adults, including ADHD, anxiety, depression, insomnia, and others.

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