A bad night’s sleep can put even the most patient among us in a sour mood, but what exactly are the effects of sleep deprivation on our brains? In this blog, we’ll examine what sort of impact a lack of shuteye can have on our grey matter, and examine some ways to improve sleep quality.
How little sleep is too little?
Firstly though, it’s important to understand exactly what qualifies as too little sleep. After all, the amount of rest people need can differ depending on a range of factors, including their age. For example, school-age children need an average of 10 hours sleep a night, while newborn babies can rack up an impressive 16 hours of slumber every 24 hours. At the other end of the scale, many individuals over the age of 70 can make do with less than six hours of kip per night.
However, experts generally agree that the majority of adults require between six and nine hours of sleep each night. If you’re not meeting these guidelines, you could be putting your health, and your brain, at risk.
Feeling grumpy, tired and unable to concentrate
We all know the short-term consequences of a shortage of shuteye. These can include feeling grumpy, tired and unable to focus. While these symptoms can be annoying, they are not generally serious. It’s when sleeplessness continues for several nights that the mental effects become more worrying. At this point, people can find it very difficult to concentrate and to make logical decisions. They are also more likely to need to nap during the day, and they are at a heightened risk of injuries and accidents at work, home and on the roads.
Increased risk of depression and anxiety
Over a long period of time, it is thought that insomnia can trigger certain mood disorders. Health specialists have found evidence that a chronic sleep debt can lead to depression and anxiety. When asked to calculate their sleeping habits, most people with these conditions report that they sleep for an average of less than six hours a night. Of course, it’s hard to extrapolate cause and effect in the case of these problems, but given that a single night’s sleeplessness can make individuals feel irritable and down, it seems likely that long-term insomnia could contribute to mood disorders.
Decreased memory function
After a poor night’s sleep, most of us find it harder to recall facts and information, and there is mounting evidence that sleep deprivation can have a more profound and long-lasting impact on memory function. One study, conducted by a team at the University of California, suggested that poor quality slumber among the elderly can cause significant memory loss and brain deterioration.
According to the team, slow brain waves generated during the deep sleep people typically experience in their youth play a crucial role in transporting memories from the hippocampus to the prefrontal cortex, where they can be retained for long periods of time. The scientists found that in older adults, memories may be getting stuck in the hippocampus as a result of poor quality shuteye.
Commenting on the findings, researcher Matthew Walker said: “What we have discovered is a dysfunctional pathway that helps explain the relationship between brain deterioration, sleep disruption and memory loss as we get older.” He added: “When we are young, we have deep sleep that helps the brain store and retain new facts and information. But as we get older, the quality of our sleep deteriorates and prevents those memories from being saved by the brain at night.”
Meanwhile, musing over the potential memory loss treatments of the future, lead study author Bryce Mander said: “Can you jumpstart slow wave sleep and help people remember their lives and memories better? It’s an exciting possibility.”
How to improve your sleep
So, we’ve established that a lack of shuteye can make you feel moody, tired and unable to concentrate - and in the longer term, it could even make you more prone to mood disorders and memory loss - but what exactly can you do to address the problem? The good news is, there are some simple steps you can take to increase your chances of resting peacefully at night.
For example, it helps to keep regular hours. If possible, go to bed and get up at very similar times each day. This should help you to programme your body clock. Also, ensure your bedroom offers the perfect sleeping environment. If you don’t already have an adjustable bed, you might benefit from investing in one to help you to achieve the perfect sleeping position. In addition, make sure your mattress is up-to-scratch, and it’s important to control light and temperature levels so that you have the right sleeping conditions throughout the year.
Regular exercise can help to improve the quality of your shuteye as well. Activities like walking and swimming help to relieve tension. Just make sure you avoid strenuous exercise too near to bedtime, as this can prevent you from nodding off.
A healthy diet is important too, and it’s important to avoid eating your meals late in the evening as the process of digestion can disrupt your ability to sleep soundly. Also, you may benefit from cutting down on your caffeine intake and, if you smoke, now could be the time to stop.
Another top tip is to do something relaxing before you go to bed. For example, you might benefit from taking a warm bath, listening to the radio or reading a book. Simple yoga stretches and breathing exercises might also be an effective way to prepare for your nightly nap.
Meanwhile, if you find you really can’t sleep, don’t simply lie in bed getting more and more wound up. This can be both stressful and counterproductive. Instead, it pays off to get up and do something you find calming until you start to feel sleepy again.
By following advice like this, you stand a better chance of getting enough sleep. As well as being good news for your energy levels and general health, this could be a major boon for your brain.