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This Is Your Brain Without Sleep

A poor night's sleep can negatively impact more than just your mood.

By Sara Novak
Dec 9, 2022 2:00 PM
Bad Sleep
(Credit:Tero Vesalainen/Shutterstock)


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Last night you didn't sleep a wink, and today you feel cranky, even mentally distressed. Things that wouldn't have usually bothered you can feel heavy, irritating and gray. It feels like the world is stacked against you.

And if one night becomes a few, mental instability can grow and, in some cases, become untenable. According to experts, it's mainly because our brains depend on sleep for basic upkeep, and when we don't get enough, it causes our systems to malfunction.

Read More: The Importance of Sleep for Your Body

Our mental health is largely based on what happens to our brains while we sleep, says neurologist and sleep medicine physician Jeffrey Durmer. After a good night's rest, we "repackage" neurochemicals like dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine and melatonin back into neurons in the brain so that we can use them the next day. These chemicals in the brain are associated with both wakefulness and a good mood. When they aren't available the next day, you're more likely to feel anxious and depressed.

Dependent on the Person

According to Durmer, "If you wake up one morning and you haven't had good sleep, and your brain hasn't repackaged these chemicals, it's very likely that you're going to experience a depressed mood."

The amount of mental instability really depends on the person, Durmer continued. "Some of us have a lot of resilience and can get through the day without too much of a problem," he says. But some people, who may already be stressed for other reasons or are dealing with factors like homelessness or food insecurity, for example, might experience even more of a mental health breakdown. "Sleep may have a very different meaning in how it precipitates mental distress from one person to the next," says Durmer.

According to a June 2021 study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, participants who slept less than six hours a night were more likely to experience mental distress. Study author Amanda Blackwelder, a doctoral student at East Tennessee State University, says that it's "bio-directional," meaning we don't know whether lack of sleep causes mental health problems or the other way around. "If you sleep less, you'll have poor mental health, but also, if you have poor mental health, you're going to sleep less," says Blackwelder.

If you look at the diagnoses for mood or personality disorders in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM 5), for example, they include sleep-related issues. It's no coincidence that one in five Americans live with a mental illness, and half will be diagnosed with one over a lifetime in a country where a third of us don't get enough sleep.

Staving off the Cycle

But there are several steps that you can take to ensure that one night of lousy sleep doesn't become a habit. For starters, says Durmer, try and avoid having any caffeine outside of the morning and don't take naps unless you must. This depletes adenosine, a neurochemical that builds up throughout the day in the brain and spinal cord and activates the body's sleep systems at night.

Additionally, try and wake up at the same time every morning, even when you don't sleep, to keep your brain on a good sleep schedule. Keep a sleep journal that includes what works and what doesn't when it comes to sleep. Maybe that second glass of wine or that bowl of chocolate ice cream is a no-no. Maybe that morning workout is a must.

And when you do have a bad night's sleep, try not to stress too much — realize what's causing you to feel down in the dumps. After all, the next night, you'll have another chance to do it all over again, this time hopefully for at least eight hours.

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