The Sleep Deprived Brain

Florence Cardinal Health Guide
  • Most people are familiar with the after effects of a night or two without sleep. Without sleep, people are less efficient and more irritable. It's even difficult for them to think. A study by the University of California in San Diego reveals that brain activity is actually altered following sleep deprivation.

     

    Parts of the brain, for instance the frontal lobe, did not function when the subject was severely sleep deprived. However, other parts of the brain, like the prefrontal cortex, exhibited more activity than normal, possibly to compensate for this non activity. The sleepier the subject, the more active the prefrontal lobe became.

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    This reversal of activity was evident in many regions of the brain. This reveals that the brain does try to compensate for the effects of sleep deprivation. However, lack of sleep does adversely effect the electrical patterns of the brain and it cannot function normally.

    Another study, this one from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, also demonstrated that lack of sleep causes difference in how we think. Thinking slows down with lack of sleep, not only during the night, but also the next day. This can cause safety concerns for people who work or drive at night. This may be because people are using some of their resources to fight off a need for sleep.

     

    Students at Colchester Sixth Form College in Britain also tested the results of sleep deprivation. Certain functions were, indeed, slowed down, like typing skills. Speech became slurred and reaction time slower. However, much to their surprise, they discovered that there was an improvement in math skills, short term memory and the ability to sort papers.

     

    Carlyle Smith, a professor of psychology at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario suggested yet another adverse effect of sleep deprivation. Students who studied hard all week and then stayed up all night partying on the weekend lost as much as 30% of what they had learned during the week.

     

    Sleep deprivation, however, is almost a way of life for most students, especially as final exams loom on the horizon. In fact, much of society suffers to some extent from sleep deprivation. There just doesn't seem to be time during the normal day for career or job duties and the time we would like to have for play.

     

    People who work the night shift often suffer from sleep deprivation. Night is the logical and natural time for sleep. Those on shift work are attempting to reverse the natural flow of their circadian rhythm. They may find sleeping in the day difficult if not almost impossible, and can become severely starved for sleep.

     

    The best way to overcome this lack of sleep, whether while on night shift, or after reverting to a normal schedule, is to practice good sleep hygiene. Gary Kaufman of the Northern Indiana Center for Sleep Medicine has these excellent suggestions:

    • Set a regular schedule to go to bed and get up.
    • Allow enough time to sleep, usually about eight hours.
    • Sleep in the same room and bed every night.
    • Keep the bedroom free of noise and disruptions like phones and TV.
    • Use the bed only for sleeping and sex.
    • Turn your clock so you can't see it. Watching the clock can keep you awake.
    • Don't eat, drink alcohol or smoke for two or three hours before you go to bed.
    • Drink a glass of milk when you retire.
    • Get some exercise earlier in the day.
    • Try reading or listening to a relaxation tape at bedtime.
    • If you wake up during the night, avoid bright lights.
    • Avoid long day time naps.

    Other suggestions, these from the Sleep Diagnostic Clinic at Stanford:

    • Sleep only when sleepy. If you can't sleep, get up and do something boring.
    • Develop sleep rituals to let your body know it's time to unwind and relax.
    • Take a hot bath 90 minutes before bedtime
    • Use sunlight in the morning to set or reset your biological clock.

    Sleep deprivation is no laughing matter. As well as disturbing your thinking patterns, it weakens your body, making it more susceptible to disease. It reduces your reaction time so you cannot react to danger as quickly. You may also fall asleep at inopportune times, like while you are operating a vehicle. Many accidents are caused by drowsy drivers. Another hazard is fire from a smoldering cigarette or a skillet left on a hot burner.

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    Do yourself and the world a favor. Get the sleep you need.

Published On: February 19, 2009