Almost every American has been taught in school that sleep is important, though many disregard this fact. We are told that we will feel and perform poorly with a lack of sleep, but with deadlines coming up faster than we expect them, many of us will still disregard our need for sleep. We do this casually, without even recognizing the full short-term and long-term impacts of sleep deprivation, including the impact on our mental health.
Sleep Deprivation Defined
Before diving into the effects on sleep on mental health, it is important to understand the meaning of sleep deprivation, as it is frequently referenced. Sleep deprivation is not a disease within itself, though it can lead to other health-related issues. Sleep deprivation is, simply put, a lack of sleep required for proper function. So, what amount of sleep constitutes sleep deprivation? For most adults, sleep deprivation would be less than seven or eight hours of sleep, which is important to keep in mind whilie reading.
The Mental Effects of Sleep Deprivation
Lack of sleep has a far greater impact than just drowsiness on an individual. Important processes in one’s head are “reset” via sleep. Without sleep humans will fail to function properly and the impact is quite significant. In terms of impairing learning and memory, according to a paper by Reut Gruber from Douglas Mental Health University Institute in Quebec, Canada (see citations), “subjects [with lack of sleep] have shown 20%–30% reduction in memory.” Furthermore, it is stated in the same paper that “students with grades of C, D, or F averaged 25–30 min less sleep per weeknight than did their peers with better grades.” It is important to note that there are external influences on poor grades not accounted for, but to see that there is a trend between the amount of sleep and grade performances, it is clear that sleep deficiency does impair learning in some manner.
Aside from learning, sleep deprivation can be linked to emotion and mental health issues. If one has ever experienced a grumpy family member in the morning who did not have much sleep the night before, one is aware that sleep has an emotional impact. This example is just the result of an occasional missed night of sleep, but what is the impact of regularly missing the proper amount of sleep? A paper on ADHD, anxiety and sleep from Medline (see citations) states that “overlapping brain mechanisms may be implicated in both inattention and the emotional deficits associated with disrupted sleep.” In other words, lack of sleep equates to both loss of focus and impairment in emotional functions. The negative impact of sleep deficiency on emotional regulation is further proven from Reut Gruber’s paper, which states, unsurprisingly, that “youths with sleep problems have higher rates of emotional problems.” Due to a weakened and dysfunctional emotional state, it is no surprise that mental disorders are more prevalent among the sleep deprived.
In a study put together about sleep duration, mental health, and substance use found within the Journal of Rural Mental Health (see citations), it is stated that “youth who experience insufficient sleep during the week have 4 to 5 times higher risks of depression relative to youth who have no sleep problems during the week .” Furthermore, the study indicated a reciprocal relationship between sleep deprivation and depressive symptoms. Meaning that controlling for initial depressive symptoms, research has found depression to occur as an effect of sleep depression, and vice versa. Controlling for initial sleep deprivation, research has found sleep deprivation to occur as an effect of major depression. Thus, it is apparent that both sleep deprivation and mental health impact each other, and it is known with high certainty that sleep deprivation negatively affects an individual’s mental state significantly.
Why Does Sleep Deprivation Have These Effects?
Sleep is an important time for our bodies to “reset” and allow recovery from a day’s worth of strains. If sleep is interrupted, or an adequate amount of sleep is not received, recovery is incomplete, resulting in the unwanted side-effects stated previously. A deeper look at what goes on during sleep can further explain the resulting side-effects of sleep deprivation.
There are two major stages of sleep, REM (rapid eye movement) and non-REM, which cycle several times while an individual is sleeping. Both REM and non-REM are said to be linked to specific brain waves and neuronal activity, indicating sleep’s crucial role in mental activity. Non-REM is associated with deeper sleep, in which bodily processes and brain waves are slower. Whereas, REM is the period of sleep during which one is typically dreaming, bodily processes and brain function are closer to that of being awake. Both REM and non-REM sleep are important and to gain a greater understanding of their importance, the impact of both sleep stages on several brain structures will be taken into account using information from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (see citations).
Important brain structures during REM sleep include the brain stem, thalamus, cerebral cortex, and amygdala. In general, the brain stem “communicates with the hypothalamus to control the transitions between wake and sleep.” However, in REM sleep, the brain stem plays an important role in muscle relaxation to prevent one from acting out their dreams. The thalamus and cerebral cortex work together to play an important role in REM sleep. In general, “the thalamus acts as a relay for information from the senses to the cerebral cortex.” During REM sleep, the thalamus transmits sensations from our dreams to the cerebral cortex, which then “interprets and processes information from short- to long-term memory.” The amygdala is an important brain structure that processes emotions, and during REM sleep the amygdala becomes increasingly active. From the brain structures involved in REM sleep and their interactions, there is already a clear connection between sleep and functions of emotion and memory.
The important brain structures during non-REM sleep include thalamus, cerebral cortex, and pineal gland. During non-REM sleep, functions of the body and brain are slowed down. The function of the thalamus and cerebral cortex during non-REM sleep is decreased significantly, allowing one to tune out the outside world as they sleep. The pineal gland is crucial in non-REM sleep, because it produces melatonin, which aids in the “changeover from wakefulness to sleep”, an important process during non-REM sleep. Noting that the cerebral cortex is linked to short-term and long-term memory, non-REM sleep also indicates a connection between sleep and memory.
Moving on from REM and non-REM, other brain structures are important for circadian rhythms which influence sleep cycles and impact an individual’s cognitive performance. These structures include the hypothalamus, basal forebrain, and midbrain. All three of these structures have one thing in common, and that is the role of sleep and arousal. The hypothalamus contains a section called the suprachiasmatic nucleus which “receives information about light exposure directly from the eyes and controls your behavioral rhythm”. The basal forebrain and midbrain control drowsiness via releasing adenosine, which increases one’s sleep drive. These structures determine the performance of an individual via circadian rhythms, which are dependent on light and dark. Inconsistent sleep or ignorance of natural cues regarding when to sleep can through off circadian rhythm, resulting in negative impacts, as discussed previously.
Methods of Mitigating Sleep Deprivation
As stated previously, sleep deprivation for most adults is anything less than seven or eight hours. The lower the amount of sleep, the greater the degree of sleep deprivation. To mitigate sleep deprivation, measures can be taken within one’s own life to maintain a consistent sleep schedule with between 7 and 8 hours of sleep each night. In today’s culture, this can be a difficult endeavor, especially for youth who are pressured to maintain the best grades while involving themselves in multiple extracurricular activities. However, it is not impossible, and with good time management, one can maximize their amount of sleep.
Method 1: Setting Aside Time for Activities
Without a consistent schedule in place to complete activities, many find it difficult to efficiently finish things in a timely manner. For instance, many students will underestimate the time it takes to complete an activity or forget about it and wait till last minute to get it done. It is for this reason that planning out activities week by week and as they come up can be extremely beneficial. However, be sure to work in manageable intervals. Doing everything at once may not work out for many due to burnout, so it is important to allocate free-time or time to de-stress as it fits oneself. This may take some trial and error.
Method 2: Avoiding Substances that will Keep One Awake
Do not stop taking important prescribed medications by one’s doctor, but try to avoid other substances like caffeine that will keep one awake at night. Caffeine keeps one awake by blocking adenosine, which is a chemical that drives sleep. It is okay to drink caffeine in the morning, but drinking caffeine late at night may keep one up past their natural sleep time, messing with one’s circadian rhythm and causing sleep deprivation. Other substances can have this same kind of effect, such as, nicotine, alcohol
Method 3: Exercise Regularly
Exercise is not only good for one’s body, but it is also good for one’s mind. Through exercise, endorphins are released, creating a happy state and reducing one’s stress and anxiety. Sleep deprivation and negative mental effects such as stress and anxiety have a reciprocal relationship, creating a loop that is difficult to break out of. However, exercise could be an effective way to break out of such cycle by reducing stress and anxiety, and subsequently making sleep easier, thus mitigating sleep deprivation.
These are just a few methods one could use to beat sleep deprivation and prevent the resulting mental consequences. There are many methods to fight sleep deprivation that one can find on the internet, but an individual must find something and tweak it so it suits them best. Whatever your method may be, make sure to take into consideration the healthy seven to eight hours of sleep each night.
- Harvard Health Publishing. (2019, March 18). Sleep and mental health. Harvard Health. Retrieved April 17, 2020, from https://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/sleep-and-mental-health
- Gruber, Reut. “Making Room for Sleep: The Relevance of Sleep to Psychology and the Rationale for Development of Preventative Sleep Education Programs for Children and Adolescents in the Community.” Canadian Psychology/Psychologie Canadienne, vol. 54, no. 1, Feb. 2013, pp. 62–71. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1037/a0030936.
- Gruber, Reut. “ADHD, Anxiety and Sleep: A Window to Understanding the Interplay between Sleep, Emotional Regulation and Attention in Children?” Behavioral Sleep Medicine, vol. 12, no. 1, 2014, pp. 84–87. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/15402002.2014.862089.
- National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. (n.d.). Brain basics: Understanding sleep. Retrieved April 17, 2020, from https://www.ninds.nih.gov/Disorders/Patient-Caregiver-Education/Understanding-Sleep
- Dr. Michael Breus. (2017, May 22). The benefits of exercise for sleep. The Sleep Doctor. https://thesleepdoctor.com/2017/05/22/benefits-exercise-sleep/
- Columbia University Department of Neurology. (n.d.). Sleep deprivation. Retrieved April 17, 2020, from https://www.columbianeurology.org/neurology/staywell/document.php?id=42069
- Daly, Brian P., et al. “Sleep Duration, Mental Health, and Substance Use among Rural Adolescents: Developmental Correlates.” Journal of Rural Mental Health, vol. 39, no. 2, Apr. 2015, pp. 108–122. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1037/rmh0000033.