What happens to your brain when you don’t sleep

What happens to your brain when you don’t sleep
When you experience a sleepless night, you are likely to have felt sluggish the next morning. This is understandable as your brain feels exhausted and brain cells also feel sluggish. When your brain cells are tired, you are more likely to be forgetful and be more easily distracted.

Sleep deprivation causes difficulty for brain cells to communicate effectively and this in turn, can lead to temporary mental lapses that impact memory and visual perception. Further, affecting your ability to learn new tasks, decrease coordination and increase risk of accidents. 

Your sleep can become slurred as a lack of sleep affects your temporal lobe, which controls language processing. You may also be less witty as your ability to swiftly shift between topics, draw interesting parallels and all the other things that make you witty will be impaired.

Sleep deprivation negatively impacts your mental abilities and emotional state. You may feel less tolerant or prone to mood swings. It can also compromise decision-making processes and creativity. You are more likely to make risky decisions as your prefrontal cortex can be impaired, the part of the brain for impulse control.

Research shows that sleep is vital for maintaining good overall brain health, and that prolonged periods of sleep deprivation can have severe consequences. Having the occasional all nighter may not be of major concern, however regular and ongoing sleep deprivation can cause brain damage potentially impacting the brain stem. 

Sleep disturbances are associated with neurodegenerative diseases and psychiatric disorders including a risk for Alzheimer’s. Also for those with bipolar disorder sleep deprivation can induce a manic state.

Given our brain is the master control of our bodies, sleep deprivation also affects other areas of our body.

Digestive system
Sleep deprivation along with eating too much and not exercising, is another risk factor for becoming overweight and obesity. Sleep affects the levels of two hormones, leptin and ghrelin, which control feelings of hunger and fullness. Leptin messages your brain that you’ve had enough to eat. Without enough sleep, your brain reduces leptin and raises ghrelin, which is an appetite stimulant. The fluctuation of these hormones may explain night time snacking or why someone may overeat later in the night.

A lack of sleep may also influence the sense of being too tired to exercise. Over time, reduced physical activity also impacts weight gain due to not burning enough calories and not building muscle mass.

Sleep deprivation also causes your body to release less insulin after you eat. Insulin helps reduce your blood sugar level (glucose). Lack of sleep also lowers the body’s tolerance for glucose and is associated with insulin resistance. These disruptions can lead to diabetes mellitus and obesity.

Immune system
While asleep, your immune system produces protective, infection-fighting substances like cytokines and antibodies. These substances are used to combat foreign invaders such as bacteria and viruses.

Certain cytokines also help you to sleep, giving your immune system more efficiency to defend your body against illness.

Lack of sleep can prevent your immune system from building up its forces. If you don’t get enough sleep, your body may not be able to fend off invaders, and it may also take you longer to recover from illness.

Long-term sleep deprivation also increases your risk for chronic conditions, such as diabetes mellitus and cardiovascular disease.

Cardiovascular system
Sleep impacts processes that keep your heart and blood vessels healthy, including those that affect your blood pressure, blood sugar, and inflammation levels. It also plays a vital role in your body’s ability to heal and repair the blood vessels and heart.

When we don’t sleep enough, we are more likely to get cardiovascular disease. One analysis has linked insomnia to an increased risk of heart attack and stroke.

Endocrine system
Sleep is essential for hormone production. At least three hours of uninterrupted sleep is required for testosterone production. This time is roughly equivalent to your first R.E.M. episode. So, if you are waking up throughout the night you could be affecting your hormone production.

For adolescents and children this interruption could also be affecting growth hormone production. These hormones are needed to build the body’s muscle mass, repair cells and tissues, in addition to other growth functions.

The pituitary gland releases growth hormone throughout each day, however inadequate sleep and lack of exercise impacts the release of this hormone.

Respiratory system
The relationship between sleep and the respiratory system is bidirectional. A fairly well-known night time breathing disorder called obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) can interrupt your sleep and decrease sleep quality.

Frequent waking throughout the night can cause sleep deprivation, which in turn leaves you more vulnerable to respiratory infections like the common cold.

What might help
Maintaining good sleep hygiene likely reduces one’s risk of developing such conditions. Good sleep hygiene is an essential place to start. You can find the link to our sleep hygiene blog here.

If problems persist, speak to your GP. You may also benefit from a referral to a sleep clinic.


Written by:
Cheryl Gale




Psychology, sleep
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