Have you ever felt like you had an insurmountable amount of work to do and almost no time to get it all done? Of course, you found ways and made time to do all that you needed to do. You prioritized. But I have to ask– where did you put sleep on your list of priorities?
It’s okay to admit if you didn’t mind losing some sleep if it meant getting your work done and decreasing the amount of stress that came with it. If you’re like me and about 20% of adults, not getting enough sleep isn’t something you’re immune to (Durmer & Dinges, 2005; Goel et al., 2009).
Though sacrificing sleep seems like a fair trade off in this case, it really isn’t– especially if this is a common occurrence for you. There are plenty of consequences and though I hate to admit it, there is a good reason why we are often told as children to get our 8 hours of sleep. I mean, have you ever been in a bad mood or “woke up on the wrong side of the bed” after a good night’s sleep? No? Oh that’s because sleep is pretty important in helping us to maintain a good mood.
Sleep also plays an integral role in our homeostatic functions and cognition. Restricted sleep can cause a decrease in cognitive speed, accuracy, and acuity (Durmer & Dinges, 2005; McEwen, 2006). Additionally, continued loss of sleep or sleep deprivation are also found to cause negative metabolic and hormonal responses (Durmer & Dinges, 2005; McEwen, 2006).
Receiving around 4 hours of sleep a night can lead to increased blood pressure, evening cortisol levels and insulin levels while also decreasing parasympathetic tone, which controls what’s known as “rest and digest” (McEwen, 2006).
Okay, maybe dropping down to 4 hours of sleep from your (usual?) 8 hours isn’t all that realistic, but even at 6 hours of sleep a night, the negative effects of sleep deprivation are quite evident in allostasis. If for a period of time, you’re consistently restricted to 6 hours of sleep, your pro-inflammatory cytokine levels can increase (McEwen, 2006). Too much of this allostatic mediator could lead to much more harm than good (through allostatic load), and according to Juster & McEwen (2015), a sleep duration of 6 hours or less is linked to and can most predict levels of allostatic load.
Allostasis is the process that maintains homeostasis through change, while allostatic overload (or allostatic load) is the cumulative wear and tear on the body’s systems caused by stress and imbalances of mediators that should promote adaptation via allostasis.
Allostatic overload in animal models, due to stress, have been found to cause atrophy of neurons in the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex, as well as hypertrophy of neurons in the amygdala (McEwen, 2006). These areas are involved in memory, attention, executive functioning, and feelings such as fear, anxiety and aggression. Interestingly enough, these areas and functions also line up nicely with the vulnerable areas Durmer and Dinges (2005) attribute to sleep deprivation, such as vulnerabilities in one’s executive attention, working memory, and higher functioning.
Sooo… when you were doing all that work and repeatedly not getting much sleep, did you realize any of these things could happen? I certainly did not. And as if all of the above wasn’t enough, sleep deprivation for much prolonged periods of time may be associated with an increased risk for obesity, depression, diabetes, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease. Though these are long term consequences of sleep deprivation, they are serious and it is very important to acknowledge where they can stem from.
Sleep is a pretty important aspect of our lives and if it wasn’t much of a priority before, perhaps it should be now. So with that, I encourage you to go to bed (at a reasonable time), get comfy, close your eyes, and get the good night’s sleep that you rightfully deserve.
Durmer, J. S., & Dinges, D. F. (2005, March). Neurocognitive consequences of sleep deprivation. In Seminars in neurology (Vol. 25, No. 01, pp. 117-129). Copyright© 2005 by Thieme Medical Publishers, Inc., 333 Seventh Avenue, New York, NY 10001, USA..
Goel, N., Rao, H., Durmer, J. S., & Dinges, D. F. (2009, September). Neurocognitive consequences of sleep deprivation. In Seminars in neurology (Vol. 29, No. 04, pp. 320-339). © Thieme Medical Publishers.
Juster, R. P., & McEwen, B. S. (2015). Sleep and chronic stress: new directions for allostatic load research. Sleep Medicine, 16(1), 7.
McEwen, B. S. (1998). Protective and damaging effects of stress mediators. New England Journal of Medicine, 338(3), 171-179.
McEwen, B. S. (2006). Sleep deprivation as a neurobiologic and physiologic stressor: allostasis and allostatic load. Metabolism, 55, S20-S23.