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Mental Health

Is Poor Sleep Killing Your Mental Performance?

Aug 3, 2017

Jack was on the fast lane to corporate success. The youngest CEO in the history of his company, he was the perfect example of the jet-setting corporate leader. He would have breakfast in one city and dinner in another one. He would probably be in another continent in the same week. He ate healthy, found time to exercise and stay fit and yet something was amiss.

He began making mistakes that were initially considered as errors in business judgment. Later on, his decisions started costing the company millions of dollars in losses; losses that could have been easily avoided. He started having trouble focusing on daily chores and his temporary memory started failing. Within six months, he became an emotional wreck. Sadly, he was booted out of the company unceremoniously. To make things worse, before his 47th birthday, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.

So what happened to an apparently healthy person in the prime of his abilities and in control of his mental faculties? Jack, it seems, never got enough sleep. It was his sleep-deprived lifestyle that led to his eventual downfall, both in health and at work where he was once a rising star.

In this day and age where a frenetic pace to go about things is the norm, sleep is often considered a luxury rather than a biological necessity. Many of us have sacrificed sleep at some point, to steal those precious moments for work at night when there is quiet. And, as a consequence, we’ve felt groggy the next morning and have blamed our lack of sleep for our not-so-great performance at work. But did you know that sleep deprivation can not only play havoc with your cognitive performance, it could also increase the risk of neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s and dementia?

Stages Of Sleep Decoded

Every night, we cycle between two stages of sleep – the “quiet” sleep (also referred to as NREM sleep, or Non Rapid Eye Movement sleep) and the REM (Rapid Eye Movement; also called “active”) sleep. These stages alternate every 90 minutes of our sleep time. The length of each cycle changes with the progression of sleep.

In NREM or “quiet” sleep, there are three stages:

  • Stage 1 is that of drowsy sleep; a stage between drowsiness and real sleep
  • Stage 2 is when the first “real” sleep happens. Conscious awareness fades and muscles relax
  • Stage 3 is when deep sleep happens. Dreaming may occur at this stage

The NREM stage of sleep is when complex physiologic changes that play an important role in healing the body and boosting the immune system occur inside the body.

REM sleep contributes to around one-fourth of the total sleep time. REM sleep happens in the latter part of the sleep period and mostly prior to waking up. Vivid dreaming occurs in this phase. Brain activity as well as heart rate, body temperature, blood pressure and rate of breathing are similar to that of fully awakened state. REM sleep contributes to emotional health in complex ways. A good REM sleep also enhances learning and memory. Lack of REM sleep has been shown to impair the ability to learn complex tasks.

What Happens to a Sleep-Deprived Brain?

The first study on the negative effects of sleep deprivation was done way back in 1896. Since that seminal work, hundreds of studies have established the effects of sleeplessness on brain functions – arousal, attention, cognitive speed, emotional intelligence, memory, decision making.

If you compare the brain of a person who has slept normally with another who is sleep deprived, you will find stark differences in their brain activity. The brain of the sleep-deprived person will show highly reduced metabolism and blood flow to multiple regions. These reductions are linked to impaired cognitive function and behavior.

All theories on how sleep deprivation affects mental functions fall into two categories:

  1. Sleep affecting alertness and attention
  2. Selective effects of sleeplessness on certain brain structures and functions

The Effects Of Sleeplessness

sleep and mental health

The Effects Of Sleeplessness

  • Feeling groggy throughout the day
  • Finding it difficult to focus on work.
  • Dramatic decrease in attention span
  • Not being alert
  • Impact on decision-making ability

Apart from these common effects, sleeplessness damages the brain in ways that we are just beginning to understand.

Impacts Crucial Functions Of The Brain

Acute sleep deprivation seems to affect an area of our brains called the prefrontal cortex. This region of the brain is associated with higher functions such as language, executive functions, creativity and divergent thinking. Research also suggests that damage to the frontal regions of the brain due to long spells of wakefulness affect attention, working memory and vigilance. In one study, volunteers showed deterioration of recall memory for faces, meaning they were unable to recognize faces they had seen before being awake for 36 hours.

Diminishes “Out-of-the-Box” Thinking

Sleep deprivation somehow forces the brain to think rigidly. After sleep deprivation, the brain also finds it difficult to utilize new information in complex tasks that require innovative decision-making. We can only think of all the decisions made by sleep-deprived executives that could have cost trillions of dollars to thousands of corporations the world over, when all that was needed was a bit of creative thinking. And the worst part is that these same executives wouldn’t even know that they made a bad decision because research suggests that self-evaluation of cognitive performance is impaired by sleep deprivation.

Increases The Risk Of Neurocognitive Disorders

Poor sleep and sleep disorders can also lead to conditions such as Alzheimer’s and dementia. We now know for certain the role of a compound called amyloid-β (Aβ) in the development of Alzheimer’s disease (AD). Aβ accumulates in plaques inside the brain. Recent research shows that the concentration of Aβ increases with wakefulness and lowers with sleep. Sleep facilitates the removal of Aβ. The work of Dr. John Douillard, a globally recognized expert in natural health, sheds more light on how sleep facilitates the removal of Aβ.

The Sleep-Brain Connection

Recently, it has been found that lymphatics (called glymphatics) drain toxins from the brain. During REM sleep, there has been noticed a rhythmic pulsing that seems to be important for lymphatic drainage. In the presence of this normal rhythmic pulsing seen during REM sleep, Aβ is effectively removed. This removal can dramatically decrease the risks of developing AD and other neurocognitive disorders.

Not only is proper lymphatic drainage important for removing toxic compounds for the brain but it is also important for immune health. With a healthy immune system, you will get lesser infections and your immune system won’t turn against your own body (as it sometimes does during an autoimmune response).

How to Sleep Like a Baby?

sleep and mental health

How to Sleep Like a Baby?

Oftentimes when you go to a doctor and complain of your inability to sleep, he or she prescribes you a drug, as a sort of knee-jerk reaction. It is as if all ills can be solved with pills. However, given that the sleep-brain connection is so complex, isn’t it likely that sleep-inducing drugs would do more harm than good in the long run?

Try Natural Remedies

There are other, better, natural ways to induce sleep, such as eating healthy and getting enough exercise. Many natural ingredients have sleep-inducing activity and have been used since ages to induce sound sleep. Herbs and spices like cumin, nutmeg, aniseed, poppy seeds and saffron have mild sleep inducing activity and can help if you have trouble falling asleep.

Melatonin Supplements Can Help

One of the most important chemicals for sleep is melatonin, a hormone that regulates the circadian cycle (your personal biological clock). Taking melatonin supplements can get your biological clock back on track and help you in getting a good night’s sleep.

Sleep-Inducing Devices Can Come To Your Rescue

Insights into how the brain works and responds while we sleep have helped develop devices that create favorable conditions inside the brain to eventually coax it to sleep. There are also devices that use either sounds or light or a combination of both to induce sleep. The most popular sleep device uses sounds that elicit delta waves in the brain that put you to sleep. Delta waves are associated with deep stage 3 sleep (NREM).

Then there are devices that mimic lighting patterns to trick your light-sensitive melatonin to kick in and make you sleep. For instance, a device called NightWave emits a pulsing blue LED light that gently guides you into a pre-sleep state. It sort of primes you for sleep.

Sound-emitting devices use “white noise” like the sound of waves or tinkling of distant bells or the wind blowing to put our mind in a relaxed state and inducing sleep. Other devices use a variety of animated patterns that create “boredom” and put you to sleep.

Relax Through Yoga

If you are looking for a more holistic way to achieve good sleep every night, you may try yogasanas like the “Shavasana,” which literally means the “Dead Body, or Corpse Pose.” You lie on your back with your head straight, hands resting on the sides and feet straight, yet relaxed. Slowly and consciously, you control your breathing to slow it down as much as you can. You relax every muscle of your body and free your mind of any distressing thoughts. The practice of this yogasana is a proven way to induce deep, relaxed sleep.

Parting Words

The Center for Disease Control has called sleep deprivation a public health problem. Not only does it risk the health of a sleep-deprived individual, it can also put other people’s lives at risk. According to the CDC, “Unintentionally falling asleep, nodding off while driving, and having difficulty performing daily tasks because of sleepiness all may contribute to hazardous outcomes, like motor vehicle crashes, industrial disasters, and medical and other occupational errors.”

Sleep deprivation has profound effects on functioning of the brain and can severely impair its peak performance. It can also increase the risks of mental disorders like Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

An average human being needs 7 to 8.5 hours of sleep every night. With increasing evidence of sleep deprivation affecting the brain in different ways and increasing the risk of mental diseases, the aura of machismo around wakefulness should be shed. We have laws to avoid driving under the influence but we do not have any laws to avoid driving or performing any industrial task while being sleep deprived. Both are equally dangerous, not just to the person but to other people as well. It is the time we give sleep its due and treat it as a vital biological necessity for lasting health and wellness.

Jitendra Rathod
Jitendra is a microbiologist and a passionate student of the human body. He is a firm believer in the power of alternative and holistic medicine. He believes nature holds the key to restore us back to health and balance.