What Happens to My Brain When I’m Sleep Deprived?

by | Last updated Nov 4, 2021

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Adequate sleep is the cornerstone of a healthy life. However, sometimes we get busy or we become very interested in something that’s happening late at night, so we don’t go to bed when we should. We might have to cram for a test, view a rare eclipse or maybe we’re just binge-watching Friday Night Lights because we need to find out if the Dillon Panthers win that big game. Before you know it, you’re sleep deprived and your brain feels the effects relatively quickly. 

It’s happened to all of us when we stay up too late. Slowly but surely, our brains interpret things differently than they normally would. First, things we wouldn’t typically consider funny become humorous enough to garner a chuckle or even a full belly laugh. Then we suddenly find the word “skedaddle” extremely interesting even if we can’t quite remember what it means. Commercials suddenly make us cry. Sounds that wouldn’t generally annoy or irritate, make us uncharacteristically angry. In more extreme cases, our sleep deprivation might even convince us that an owl is watching us from a nearby tree and that his name is Joe. At this point, it’s definitely time to get some sleep. 

So what’s happening in our brains when we’re deprived of sleep that would make a rational and clear-thinking person behave differently than usual, act silly, or in some cases act downright strange?

How Sleep-Deprivation Affects the Brain

In 2007, researchers from Berkely and Harvard did a study to find out what exactly was happening to brains when they were deprived of sleep. Twenty-six healthy participants were split into two groups. The control group was able to sleep normally. The other group was forced to stay awake for two days and one night. 

At the end of the second day, the researchers showed the participants one hundred images. The photos started off neutral and gradually became more and more negative. While the participants viewed these photos, they were being scanned by an MRI. The researchers took the data from the sleep-deprived brains and compared it to the scans from the control group. 

What they found was when people lack sufficient sleep, the amygdala, also known as the fear center of the brain, gets cranked up to eleven and overrides the prefrontal cortex. That prefrontal cortex is where people do their rational thinking, and when it’s overridden, logic and reasoning become severely hampered. Additionally, the part of the brain that regulates emotion becomes sixty percent more active. In short, judgment becomes impaired and emotions run out of control.

Related: Sleep Awareness Week: Most Americans Need Better Sleep

The Side Effects of Short-Term Sleep Deprivation

The short-term side effects of sleep deprivation on a healthy person are fairly minor. It’s similar to being under the influence of alcohol. Those signs on the highway which claim Drowsy Driving Is Impaired Driving is no exaggeration.  It’s always best to stay away from the cockpit of any nearby heavy machinery, including your personal vehicle, when you’ve been without enough sleep. 

It’s also rarely in your best interest to make any big decisions with long-term consequences under the influence of sleep deprivation. Don’t play the stock market. Don’t sign any binding contracts. Wait until tomorrow to make the really big decisions, like proposing marriage. Just go to bed. You’re suffering from short-term sleep loss. The side effects of which include: 

  • Inability to Handle Stress 
  • Emotional Distress
  • Memory Problems
  • Cognition Issues
  • Decrease in Performance
  • Irritability 

Regular Sleep Loss Is Dangerous

The solution for short term or occasional sleep deprivation is simple. Schedule your day, or create a routine that allows you to get your full 7-9 hours of recommended sleep. Prioritize sleep and don’t allow your binge-watching Netflix or scrolling through social media feeds keep you from a good night’s rest and sharp thinking the next day. 

While most of us will get goofy and miss out on much needed sleep once in a blue moon, there are those who suffer from insomnia. Insomnia is an actual disorder where you’re unable to get the sleep you need, despite the opportunity. Sleep deprivation is the result of getting poor restless sleep or reducing the number of hours of sleep you get because you’re choosing not to sleep. 

Insomnia certainly has a lasting impact on health and wellness. Insomniacs are at increased risk of heart attack, stroke, diabetes, seizures, asthma and more. Insomnia also reduces the effectiveness of the immune system, which increases the risk of various types of illnesses and infections. If you feel like your sleep deprivation is pointing to something more serious than the short term side effects that missed hours of sleep may cause you should reach out to schedule an appointment. We can help.

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