How Sleep Deprivation Decays the Mind and Body

“The reason I know it was October was there was a pumpkin at the nursing station, and I hallucinated vividly the pumpkin was talking to me,” he said. “It’s the only time I’ve ever hallucinated in my life.” Ah, he thought for the first time, sleep deprivation resembles psychosis.

According to Walseban, sleep loss can cause psychological damage because sleep regulates the brain’s flow of epinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin, chemicals closely associated with mood and behavior.

“Mood and sleep use the same neurotransmitters,” she said. “It’s very hard to tell if someone has sleep loss or depression.” Walseban added that when these neurotransmitters are disrupted by sleep loss, the chemical changes in the brain can also result in manic feelings and behavior similar to bi-polar disorder: high highs of ecstasy and low lows of depression and anger.

This aligns with my experience; while sleep deprived, I swung from profound bliss and satisfaction, laughing at Renaissance frescos, to deep sadness and rage, grunting like a gorilla one night in a Lucerne hotel room where I chucked empty glass soda bottles at my best friend’s head.

When I tried to stay awake for as long as I could, I was an aggrieved, angst-filled teenager. I did it to show that I could, to prove something about myself, and to conquer some adolescent frustrations. I felt that I did not have much time on Earth, and death scared me. I did not really believe in an afterlife, and my fears made me wish I had more hours and years to live. Needing to sleep a third of each day bothered me, and I started staying up late to watch television, read, and write. Eventually I was only sleeping four or five hours each night. One day, I told myself, I would prove how much time sleep stole from us by staying awake for as long as I could and documenting everything I did and accomplished. I imagined that when I could not take it anymore, I would pass out, then sleep long and deep to make up for the extra time awake, and that would be the end of it.

Feinsilver said the notion that a person can “catch up” on lost sleep is misconstrued. “If you’re getting five hours of sleep Monday through Friday, by Friday, you owe yourself like, 10 or 12 hours of sleep,” he said. “It’s not quite that simple. What that means is that, in order for you to catch up on weekends, you’d have to sleep ridiculous hours. And nobody does. You’d have to sleep the seven, plus an extra 12.”

A sleep-deprived person recovers from sleep loss similar to a traveller recovering from a flight; she spends a certain amount of time tiring out her body and can rehabilitate with an equivalent or duplicative amount of recovery time. For each hour spent in a plane, a person needs approximately the same number of days to fully recover from jetlag. In a widely cited paper from 2006, European researchers compared this process to the body’s method of loss and recovery when it chronically loses sleep. The problem, the researchers write, is that many people who chronically lose sleep live in societies where their work and school schedules are not aligned with the body’s circadian rhythms.  So they never make up for lost sleep from the nights before, and build up a “sleep debt” that is never repaid. The consequence of chronic sleep debt, they say, is “social jetlag”—a chronic slowing of concentration and hampering of bodily systems. Researchers like Feinsilver and Walseban fear that this affect has been widespread. “We’re a sleep deprived society,” Feinsilver said.

Feinsilver’s memory of the talking pumpkin stayed with him, but he did not decide to pursue sleep research until he won a fellowship to study the ventilatory drive, the mechanism by which the brain sends signals to the lungs and makes a person breathe. At the time, he said, people erroneously thought that sleep apnea was caused by problems with those signals. The research gripped him enough that that he decided to open his own sleep lab. Today, although his focus remains on sleep problems associated with breathing and the lungs, he continues to investigate the other negative effects that sleep deprivation has on the mind and body.

“Definitely, we know that sleep deprivation leads to depression, high blood pressure, weight gain, heart disease, and probably mortality,” he said. People that regularly sleep those seven and a quarter hours have been shown to live longer than those who routinely sleep less or more. He added that lack of sleep disrupts other systems in the body.

“For instance, if you stay up until 3 a.m., you might get very cold,” he said, clarifying that sleep helps to regulate your body temperature. “Your G.I. tract can get messed up. You’re not supposed to eat at three in the morning. It’s a fairly miserable experience.”

Both Feinsilver and Walseben, whose background is in biopsychology, said that these interruptions, as well as the aforementioned neurotransmitter disturbances, can disrupt reaction times and concentration. Walseben noted that certain famous historical accidents—such as the the spill of the Exxon Valdez oil tanker—were caused by sleep deprived workers. More recently, a Metro North train in New York may have derailed when a sleep-deprived engineer nodded off at the helm. Feinsilver said that lack of sleep is also a leading cause of automobile accidents, mainly because when the brain is deprived of sleep, it becomes particularly difficult to perform prolonged, repetitive tasks like driving.

Presented by

Seth Maxon is a journalist based in New York City. His work has appeared on NPR, Columbia Journalism Review, and In These Times.

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