Sleep loss kills brain cells

11 research-backed ways your life falls apart when you don’t sleep

Sleep has become a guilty pleasure for many. But it’s time to shake off the guilt and realise that missing out on even a small amount can have ruinous effects.

If you need convincing, here are 11 research-backed ways that losing out on sleep can totally spoil your day….. and your life.

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1) You lose your looks

Sleep loss and attractiveness

Beauty sleep is no myth. If you’re concerned about your looks you’d be wise to consider the countless ways that sleep contributes to your physical appearance.

At night, human growth hormone (HGH) is released. This plays a vital role in stimulating collagen, which as every beauty buff knows, is key to healthy looking skin. It’s simple, less sleep, less collagen.

But that’s not all. Skin cell regeneration, thinning hair, bags under the eyes and premature ageing are all affected by poor sleep.

2) You lose your most cherished memories

The last few decades have provided invaluable research about sleep’s role in our memories. In fact there’s evidence to suggest that one of the possible functions of sleep is to facilitate memory retention.

Researchers believe that sleep is vital in order for an event to be consolidated into a long term memory. Without sleep, your brain has a much hard time absorbing and recalling information.

Although napping can help, it’s thought that memory consolidation mostly takes place in deep, or slow-wave sleep (SWS). Experiments have shown that artificially boosting SWS improves memory consolidation, as does a period of SWS before learning.

In short, if you don’t want to forget. Sleep….deep.

3) Your brain turns to mush 

Sleep loss kills brain cells
Flickr/gruntzooki

One very scary consequence of sleep loss is that it may cause actual physical deterioration of brain cells.

In a healthy sleep schedule, the brain goes into ‘maintenance mode’ undertaking many tasks including repairing damaged cells and getting rid of toxic proteins (plaques which some scientists say may play a role in Alzheimers).

Less sleep means that some of these tasks remain incomplete, putting undo strain on your grey matter. Research has even found that sleep deprivation can cause your brain volume to actually shrink in size.

The evidence is clear. If you want to look after your brain, make sure you get plenty of sleep.

4) You lose your keys, (and your attention span)

Sleep loss- short term memory

If you find yourself scouring the house for your keys every time you try to leave, you might want to reconsider the amount of sleep you’re getting.

Studies show that people have rather inefficient short term memories when sleep deprived; and make more mistakes even with simple tasks. Both adults and children experience cognitive and attention deficits when they haven’t slept well, leading some researchers to make a link between sleep loss and ADHD.

5) You turn into a clumsy fool

Sleep deprivation makes you clumsy
Image: Wikipedia Commons

Lack of sleep goes hand in hand with clumsiness. Both our mental and physical faculties are adversely affected. Studies have shown that footballer’s skills are noticeably diminished after a bout of sleep deprivation.

Brain scans reveal that the sleep deprived take longer to complete visual recognition tests. And even when they do complete the task, they may not be able to respond very accurately.

This is the reason for both – the lack of speed, and the increase in errors caused by a sleepy, malfunctioning brain. As we get more tired, our neurons start to malfunction, causing behavioural and cognitive changes which gradually get worse and worse.

Lack of sleep also interferes with the speed and efficiency of your learned responses and reaction times. Many times, these few extra seconds are crucial in avoiding a Mr Bean-like mishap ,or perhaps some more serious.

6) You pile on the pounds

Sleep loss and weight gain

Our body clocks, or circadian rhythms, don’t just dictate when we’re asleep and awake. They also determine many other vital physiological processes including body temperature, hormone production, and when we should be eating.

Hence sleep and appetite are intimately linked. Eat at the wrong time of day and your sleep will suffer. Conversely, if you’re sleep deprived, your hunger and appetite is thrown completely out of whack.

Studies have found that night shift workers, for example, who sleep during the day are more likely to become obese because of the disruption to their metabolism caused by shifting sleep patterns.

Poor sleep equals poor food choices. There are many reasons for this –  tiredness, hunger hormones, lower body temperature, cognitive impairment (check out this chart for a simple explanation of how late nights = increased appetites).

All of which adds up to the fact that if you want to maintain a healthy weight, sleep, is just as important as diet and exercise.

7) Your ruin your immune system

sleep-immune-system

While we sleep in bed at night our bodies may seem passive, but inside there’s a hive of activity going on. Among other things it’s when our cells are repaired, neural pathways are strengthened, protective antibodies are created, and hormonal balance is established.

Sleep acts as our maintenance window, a time of healing and restoration. So when we’re sleep deprived, the ‘repairs’ don’t get carried out, putting greater strain on our bodies and mimicking the effect on our immune system as physical stress.

Studies have shown that sleep deprivation causes a decrease in the number of protective white T-cells, which are essential for our immune defences, protecting us against colds, fevers and bacterial infections.

Since a sleep deprived body also does not get to complete it’s repairs, our overall immunity become compromised. The body actually performs like that of a much older person; suggesting that sleep is essential to combat the effects of ageing.

8) You have more accidents

Sleep deprivation - accidents

Sleepy loss causes lapses in attention and memory that sometimes have disastrous consequences. Sleep deprivation and drowsy driving is responsible for 100s of thousands of road accidents every year.

In the workplace sleep loss is a major cause of industrial accidents, and has been implicated in some of the most serious incidents in recent history, such as the nuclear incidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, and even the Challenger space shuttle explosion.

Impaired judgement, lowered attention spans when sleep deprived can cause us to miss important information from our surroundings, often leading to ‘microsleeps‘ – that can provide disastrous when driving or operating machinery.

9) You’re moody as hellSleep deprivation - accident

We all know what it’s like to get out of the wrong side of bed. Grumpiness, irritability, short temper. But the emotional effects of sleep deprivation can be far worse.

In one study, sleep deprived medical interns were shown to be more prone to mood disturbances, depression and burnout than their peers who slept normally.

Even short term sleep loss can have negative consequences. Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania found that subjects who were restricted to 4.5 hours sleep per night became increasingly stressed, angry, sad, and mentally exhausted. When the participants resumed normal sleep however, their mood showed a rapid improvement.

So take heart if you find yourself snappy, irrational, down, or just plain unpleasant. You just might need to get a few more hours of sleep.

10) You lose your libido

Sleep loss and libido

Poor sleep makes you feel less inclined to have sex. Although it’s the case for both sexes, it is particularly true for men.

Sleep deprivation has been linked to reduced testosterone levels with one study finding that otherwise healthy young men experienced a 15% dip in testosterone after just a week of limited sleep.

This, along with all the other factors, means that if you’re chronically sleep deprived, the last thing that will be on your mind is sex.

11) Finally….you might die

Death and sleep loss
Flickr/SanFranAnnie

As if all the above weren’t scary enough, consider that long term sleep deprivation can actually increase the risk of death.

Apart from the (potentially lethal) mistakes we might make when sleepy, consistent sleep deprivation (sleeping for less than 7 hours a night) is linked to increased risk for heart disease and stroke, and increase in blood pressure and obesity – all conditions that carry the risk of bodily harm and death.

Despite our advanced scientific knowledge, we still don’t fully understand why sleep deprivation is so dangerous. But as a stark warning, consider Allan Rechtschaffen’s series of groundbreaking sleep experiments in the 1980’s. He subjected rats to continual sleep deprivation, and, after 32 days, every single one was dead.

Scientists still don’t agree on the mechanisms that can cause sleep loss to become fatal, and we’ll probably never know because we can’t conduct the same experiments on humans.  Thankfully, it’s easy to prevent such dire consequences. One word. Sleep.

This piece was co-authored with Gauri Sarda Joshi

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