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How Sleep Deprivation Affects the Brain


The amount of time spent in quality, deep sleep has decreased over several decades.

Sleep might seem like a period of time when the brain is at rest. But that’s not true. Sleep is an active neurological process. The brain is going through very specific stages that should happen for specific periods of time. The brain should run through these cycles of stages a certain number of times over the course of the night. We describe the assessment of these processes as evaluation of sleep architecture. When sleep is optimal, the brain processes information to solidify memory, cleanses itself of toxic proteins through the glymphatic system, and participates in regulation of other physiologic systems necessary for normal cardiac, gastrointestinal, and pulmonary function. When sleep is disordered, any and/or all of these activities can be impaired, resulting in neurological and other systemic disorders.

I read a fascinating article in ESPN recently which analyzed how the lack of quality sleep has negatively impacted the short- and long-term health of NBA basketball players as well as their ability to cognitively function on the court and in society. Dr. Eve Van Couter, who works as the director of the University of Chicago's Sleep, Metabolism and Health Center, also pointed out in the article that sleep loss leads to a decline of "almost everything one can measure" as it relates to mental and physical performance. While the report was both enlightening and disconcerting, sleep deprivation is not an issue that only affects professional athletes. It affects all of us.

A 2011 study that was conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the average person has experienced the amount of sleep they get on a weeknight reduced from 8.5 hours to fewer than seven. The result? So many more people are now experiencing the negative impacts that sleep deprivation has on the brain and overall health.

Memory Issues

Sleep deprivation negatively impacts the brain's ability to remember information, both in the short-term and over the long haul. So, when you're meeting new people while sleep deprived, and one of them says, "Hello, I'm Sam," your brain is going to be much less apt to remember that name a few seconds or minutes later than if you were well-rested. This impact on a tired mind is also a reason why those "all-nighter" study sessions are probably not the best thing for students before exams.

Trouble Concentrating

Not only is it more difficult to remember things while sleep deprived, but processing information, solving problems, and concentration are negatively impacted as well. This is due to essential neurons in your brain's temporal lobe firing at a noticeably weaker and slower rate. That neurological phenomenon is one of the reasons why sleep-deprived driving is so dangerous and frequently compared to the impairment one experiences while driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol. The driver who's operating on little sleep cannot respond to situations such as a pedestrian stepping in front of their car nearly as quickly and safely as they would while fully awake.

Reduced Creativity

A lack of sleep also adversely affects the brain's ability to be creative. This impacts activities like creating art, and it also affects the ability to be more creative in academic and work-related settings, resulting in work that's not as high-quality or interesting as may otherwise be the case. Conversely, receiving enough sleep results in higher and more creative problem-solving abilities. Simply put, your mind is being used to its full capacity when it's well-rested as opposed to merely getting by as best as it can when damaged and tired.

Poor Communication

Collaborative communication is such an essential aspect of our everyday lives. Executives need it to interact with each other and those who work with and for them. Teachers need it to engage with students. Athletes need it to work well with teammates and coaches. However, not getting enough sleep has been studied to negatively impact successful communication – from worse language comprehension to decreased verbal fluency.

Mood Changes

Lack of sleep is a mood reducer. Those who experience chronic sleep loss tend to be moodier, more emotionally volatile, and shorter-tempered than those who aren't sleep deprived. This can have a profoundly negative impact on their lives as it not only harms their ability to communicate and engage in healthy interpersonal relationships, but it also affects personal peace of mind. Lack of sleep can lead to depression, anxiety, and other related disorders.

Although sleep deprivation does affect the entire body, its effect on the brain is arguably the most concerning, and it tends to permeate just about every single aspect of it of our lives. If you or someone you know is battling chronic sleep deprivation, it is crucial to talk to a doctor about it as soon as possible. There are so many treatment options available today, and many of them are no more invasive than some simple lifestyle adjustments that can lead you to better zzzs in the future.