Is sleep deprivation affecting your brain and body?

By Phoebe Humphrey | @PhoebeHumphrey_

Feeling sluggish the morning after binging an entire TV series? or cranky after a late night of studying?

It’s time to make those sleepless nights a thing of the past and catch some Z’s before sleep deprivation affects your study, mood and overall cognitive functions.

According to the Sleep Health Foundation, inadequate sleep affects an estimated 7.4 million Australian adults and students are making a big contribution to this number.

Specialising in the effects of sleep disturbances, sleep scientist Dr Camilla Hoyos from the University of Sydney said “although sleep is one of the three pillars of health, it tends to be pushed aside due to students having to change their sleeping patterns for study”.

“When you (students) need to get study done, it is done into the hours of the night when you are meant to be sleeping,” she said.

Two PhD researchers from the RMIT Sleep Lab explained the four major effects of sleep deprivation on the brain and body.

  1. Decrease in Cognitive Performance

Our sleep cycle is based on two different functions: homeostatic sleep drive and a biological circadian clock. When you go for long periods without sleep, it disturbs genes that control our circadian rhythm, resulting in the reduced ability to perform a task.

Thinking of staying up the night before an exam? Think again, as lack of sleep affects your ability to retain information. By refraining from sleeping, activity is reduced in the hippocampus, the part of the brain that controls memory. So those 2 a.m. cramming sessions are a self-defeating practice; your brain can’t retain all the information without a period of sleep.

2. Reaction time is slowed

Sleep deprivation causes our reaction time to reduce, preventing you from being fully aware and alert. By staying awake, you may experience ‘microsleeps,’’ which are brief episodes of sleep that occur while you are awake.

“Once we get into our biological night and haven’t slept, our body tries to compensate with these microsleeps, leading to an increase in the risk of accidents,” Dr Hoyos said.

As your body struggles to fight off sleep, these microsleeps become longer in duration until you can finally hit the hay and get a full night’s rest.   

3. Emotional responses are atypical

You know when you’re tired and everything, even the smallest thing, can annoy you? This is because regular loss of sleep increases negative mood states and brings on feelings of anger, sadness or irritability.

It is known that sleep disorders and depression have a bidirectional relationship and according to Dr Hoyos, sleep deprivation “may be a risk factor for the development of these conditions”.

4. Risk of developing serious health problems

Although it might seem like a couple of late nights right now, sleep deprivation is associated with greater health issues such as high blood pressure, obesity and diabetes.

Sleep loss leads to an increase in ghrelin levels, the hormone responsible for stimulating appetite. A new study which visually maps the brain activity of sleep-deprived people has found certain areas of the brain ‘light up’ after restricted sleep.

“Sleep deprivation causes more neuronal activity in these food-focused areas, craving high dense calorie type foods, this leads to issues of obesity and diabetes,” Dr Hoyos said.

Poor sleep is also linked with lower life expectancy.

But enough with the doom and gloom, let’s talk about some tips to improve the quality of your sleep.

If we have learnt anything from good old Pavlov, we should keep our bed for sleeping.  Doing activities such as watching TV or being on your phone in bed conditions your brain to believe the bed is less for sleep and more for being awake, hindering the onset of your sleep.

Be mindful of stimulants and their half-life. Caffeine has a half-life of 3-5 hours; meaning 50 per cent of your 5 p.m. coffee may still be in your system at 10 p.m.

For more information, refer to the Australian Sleep Health Foundation or RMIT’s Sleep Lab.

Sweet Dreams!

Catalyst has been the student publication of RMIT University since 1944. We may be older than your parents but we’re still going strong!

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