If you think that missing sleep isn’t so bad — you can push through the fatigue and even a little crankiness — a growing body of evidence suggests you need to think again. You’re compromising your cognitive abilities, and likely to be sacrificing emotional balance as well.
As one who has struggled with sleep issues off and on for years, I’m paying attention.
Consider this brief in Time explaining what happens to your brain on no sleep, as Alice Park reports on research that uses brain imaging to highlight differences between people with normal sleep patterns and those suffering from insomnia.
In a small study published in the journal Radiology, a team of Chinese and European researchers report a more detailed analysis of how insomnia can affect specific types of brain nerves in parts of the brain that regulate cognition, emotion and sensory processes…
When Cognition and Emotions Are Compromised
Cognition. That’s your ability to think. That’s your grasp of language, concepts, memory. Do you really want your cognitive abilities routinely compromised?
Emotion and sensory processes. Want those compromised, too?
“That’s not so bad,” you tell yourself. A little crankiness won’t kill you. So you’re quicker to anger or for that matter, to tears. Your husband or wife will cut you slack. Besides, you’ll pay careful attention in the workplace so you don’t aggravate your supervisor.
And if your reasoning is a little hazy?
“No worries,” you think. “So, I’m a little less alert, my memory isn’t so sharp, but once I’m through this tough period, everything will be just fine.”
But what if your judgment is more impaired than you realize? What if you’re more accident prone around the house, in the office, or on the commute back and forth? What if you’re doing damage to your health and your relationships in ways you may not realize?
Psychological Impacts of Sleep Deprivation
Psychology Today gives us a look at the psychological impacts of too little sleep: as a 2015 study at Tel Aviv University looked at the role of the amygdala, described as:
… a region of the brain associated with detection and valuation of salient cues in our environment, in the course of a cognitive task.
What researchers found:
… just one night of sleeplessness changes your ability to regulate emotions and allocate brain resources necessary for objective cognitive processing…
… We may… lose our ability to sort out more or less important information. This can lead to biased cognitive processing and poor judgment as well as anxiety…
Sizing the Problem
Psychology Today weighs in:
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 30 percent of American adults get less than six hours of sleep per night.
Staggered by that figure?
Are we a populace of sleepwalkers?
How many of us don’t think to look at sleep patterns as a significant contributor to problems in our stressful scrambled lives? In our volatile relationships? Or if we do, we convince ourselves that sleep can go and we’ll be fine?
As for the promised land of the 7 or 8 hours of zzzzs that our brains require, an almost inconceivable number of us are getting far less, and no doubt we are suffering the consequences in quality of life and degraded performance at work, at school, and in our relationships.
Sleep: Ongoing Study
Noting that further studies are required, the Time article explains:
[researchers] specifically focused on white matter volume, which represents nerve cells that are coated in a special protein called myelin that improves their ability to send signals to one another. Earlier brain imaging studies had suggested that people with insomnia have differences in certain parts of the brain that could be connected to inadequate myelin… 83%, or five of the six major nerve tracts that the scientists analyzed, were reduced among people with insomnia…
When scientists explain damaging physiological consequences of behavioral patterns — however much we rationalize their necessity in a crazy-busy world — some of us are more apt to listen. I certainly am. And then I take a broader and longer view of my priorities. I consider the importance of physical and emotional health. I do my best to accomplish necessary shifts.
No Time for Sleep? Make Time.
American culture lauds “success” and competitiveness, promotes “do more with less” approach to work, and views all-nighters not only as necessary at times, but as a mark of mental toughness.
I have done this myself, putting in extended periods with little to no sleep in order to meet deadlines. Both of my sons, in high school and college, have followed my (less than ideal) example. It isn’t that we wish to sacrifice sleep, but we focus on the “prize” we’re after without acknowledging the physical price.
Let’s not forget another culturally accepted culprit: the assortment of distractions and demands firing their alerts at us from smartphones, tablets, and other assorted screens. And if we can’t sleep?
We consume more coffee or an energy drink, we forage for sweets, and we shrug off fatigue telling ourselves “I’ll catch up on the weekend.”
But we don’t. We perpetuate the cycle. And what we need to do, challenging though it is, is to make sleep a priority.
*Figure used sums demographic segments from this 2015 source.
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