If you’re missing out on sleep, you have no doubt experienced a feeling of grogginess, or inability to concentrate. Perhaps if you’re used to late nights or early mornings, you just grab a coffee and get on with your day. However, sleep deprivation can have far more profound effects on your brain function than you might think.
New studies have shown that the effects of sleep deprivation can be the same as drinking too much, and if ignored over time can lead to cognitive decline later in life.
“We discovered that starving the body of sleep also robs neurons of the ability to function properly,” said Fried, the study’s senior author, a professor of neurosurgery at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and Tel Aviv University. “This leads to cognitive lapses in how we perceive and react to the world around us.” – in plain English this means, we make more mistakes.
Here are the main effects that being sleep deprived can have on your brain function.
This is one side effect that most people might recognise. Losing out on sleep can impair your ability to filter out information, meaning that if lots of other things are going on at the same time, you may find it hard to focus on the specific information you need. This can be frustrating at work or college, and could be dangerous if you’re driving, for instance.
Sleep deprivation slows down the ability of the cells in your brain to process visual information and translate that into conscious thought, thereby slowing down your reactions to the world around you. The study shows this has the same effect as alcohol on your reaction times.
“Severe fatigue exerts a similar influence on the brain to drinking too much,” Fried said.
Not getting enough sleep earlier on life, particularly middle age, can lead to greater risk of cognitive decline later on. A report from University Health News even suggests that people diagnosed with insomnia may be twice as likely to develop dementia. This is an extreme example, but it shows how important getting enough sleep can be throughout your life.
But getting too much sleep may also be harmful - the study also found that getting 9 or more hours a night can also have the same detrimental effect.
Learning and memory
When we sleep, your brain carries out a kind of ‘rehearsal’ of what you learned during the day. When you learn something, your brain ‘fires’ millions of nerve cells (neurones) in certain patterns, and when you sleep, your brain ‘replays’ these same patterns. This replaying is what reinforces your memories overnight.
Every night your body experiences a ‘sleep cycle’ of five different stages which repeat throughout the night. One cycle takes about 90-110 minutes.
Stage One – You are on the edge of sleep, where it’s easy to wake up. Ever experienced a jolt like you’re falling when you’re first getting to sleep? That’s this stage.
Stage Two – You are in a light sleep, your heart rate has slowed and your body temperature has fallen.
The next stages are the most important ones for brain power.
Stage Three and Four – You are in a deep sleep, where it’s hard to be woken up, and you would feel disorientated for a few minutes if you did wake up. How it helps your brain: This is when your tissues are repaired, energy is restored and hormone production is increased. This restorative stage of sleep plays a vital role in consolidating new information learned during the day – the ‘replaying’ we mentioned earlier that helps you memorise things and transfer information from short term to long term memory.
“Sleep deprivation impairs learning and the ability to create new memories. Poor sleep also diminishes your capacity to recall memories you’ve already made, whether you made them a month ago, or 10 years ago,” says the Sleep Doctor.
Decision-making and judgement
Research has shown that you’re more likely to engage in risky behaviour and impulsive decisions when you’re sleep deprived. This is because when you don't get enough sleep your prefrontal cortex, the area that handles decision-making and planning, is affected. You’re more likely to make decisions that offer an immediate reward rather than thinking long-term.
This all goes to show that when you’ve got a deadline looming, sometimes it’s best to get a good night’s sleep than burn the midnight oil to get it done.
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