Thoughts on Sleep Debt and Cognition

   As promised, I’m back with information about how the lack of sleep can affect the brain, particularly with its cognitive performance. I mentioned before that I personally had a long-term bout with sleep deprivation alongside depression and anxiety, so I do have first-hand experiences on the topic. But as a responsible writer and researcher, it would be best to read on the subject so that I could understand what I’ve gone and am still going through, and could find ways to solve cognitive issues that I may have.

   Here’s what I’m going to do: I will be quoting notable statements from different sources about the topic, then I will reactions and opinions on the quotation. If you are interested to read the articles completely, I will be providing links for them so don’t worry. As a side note, forgive me for not quoting offline references here, as I am currently living in a different city and do not have any access to those at the moment. So here goes!

Americans are notoriously sleep deprived, but those with psychiatric conditions are even more likely to be yawning or groggy during the day….Sleep problems are particularly common in patients with anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).-Sleep and Mental Health, Harvard Health Publications

R&O: This article’s focused on Americans, but of course this can apply to any nationality (I’m a Filipino, and it applies to me). I completely agree with this statement. Although my student and teacher workload were really pushing me to my waking limits, I have had depression and social anxiety for years. There were a lot of times that I could sleep all day, or couldn’t even sleep at all, and that could be extremely exhausting. A person with no psychological problems would think that I was just procrastinating or outright lazy, but that’s definitely not the case.

…[S]leep problems may raise risk for, and even directly contribute to, the development of some psychiatric disorders. This research has clinical application, because treating a sleep disorder may also help alleviate symptoms of a co-occurring mental health problem… [N]euroimaging and neurochemistry studies suggest that a good night’s sleep helps foster both mental and emotional resilience, while chronic sleep disruptions set the stage for negative thinking and emotional vulnerability.Sleep and Mental Health, Harvard Health Publications

 R&O: So basically, more sleep means stronger mental and emotional abilities, and that means going farther from psychological problems, while everything is vice versa for less sleep. That made me think about my what-ifs. Did my lack of sleep back then pushed me to a deeper depression? It most likely did. But back then, sleep wasn’t a priority. Heck, my body wasn’t a priority. The younger me thought it was okay to not sleep for a few years, because coffee, cigarettes, and energy drinks exist. There’s also the thought that schooling and life in general are expensive so you have to work things out despite lacking sleep. I guess we all regret things in the end.

Trouble sleeping can absolutely contribute to anxiety, as it reduces stress coping ability. Anxiety can also lead[sic] to a lack of sleep.How Sleep Debt Causes Serious Anxiety, Calm Clinic

R&O: This is a similar statement to the ones above, but is more focused on the connection between anxiety and sleep deprivation. But i would like to focus on how the lack of sleep affects how you cope with stress. Cognition can cause stress, especially if you’re in a rush or there’s a bulk of work to do. So when you lose sleep, the mind breaks when it can’t deal with mental stress. If paired with trauma or something else, the mind could shut down in an instant for all we know, and THAT IS SCARY.

Studies have shown that those that are sleep deprived often have significant brain “dysfunctions” that can cause further anxiety. In fact, extreme sleep deprivation can cause the brain to start hallucinating, and experiencing many symptoms (both mental and emotional) that mimic paranoid schizophrenia.-How Sleep Debt Causes Serious Anxiety, Calm Clinic

R&O: So in the article, this quote was under the heading Brain Stress, which is one of the things that sleep debt does to cause anxiety. I can attest to the hallucination, both visual and aural. Personally, the hallucination almost scared me to death back then. There were times that I wouldn’t have known that they were hallucinations if people didn’t actually point them out to me. I sort of invited the possibility of schizophrenia back then, but the doctor didn’t diagnose me with it, so it was all probably due to sleep debt (STILL SCARY).

Today, prolonged wakefulness is a widespread phenomenon….Prolonged wakefulness can be due to acute total sleep deprivation (SD) or to chronic partial sleep restriction….Both total and partial SD induce adverse changes in cognitive performance. First and foremost, total SD impairs attention and working memory, but it also affects other functions, such as long-term memory and decision-making. Partial SD is found to influence attention, especially vigilance….Coping with SD depends on several factors, especially aging and gender. Also interindividual differences in responses are substantial. In addition to coping with SD, recovering from it also deserves attention. Cognitive recovery processes, although insufficiently studied, seem to be more demanding in partial sleep restriction than in total SD.-Sleep Deprivation: Impact on Cognitive Performance, Paula Alhola and Päivi Polo-Kantola

R&O: This is the abstract of the wonderful research, with a few sentences unquoted. I recommend reading the whole paper as it explains the experiment and results in full detail. In line with the quote, I was more exposed to chronic partial sleep than total sleep deprivation. My biorhythm doesn’t really allow me to deal with the latter, so there’s also that. The longest time I haven’t slept is 36-40 hours (I’m not so sure), and I passed out. MY MIND AND BODY JUST SHUT ITSELF DOWN AUTOMATICALLY. Last year, an Asian woman died because she was awake for 30 hours, and her mind/body induced her into eternal comatose, then death.  Bless her soul. (How did this get so dark? Sorry.) There are also studies that say women should get more sleep than men because the effects are more adverse. Man, there’s so much to say about this research. SO. MUCH.

Another area of the brain that suffers dramatically from sleep deprivation is the hippocampus. This is a region critical for the storing of new memories. When people are deprived of sleep for even one night, their ability to memorise new information drops significantly.-How a Lack of Sleep Affects Your Brain–and Personality, Jake Tamminen

R&O: I’m a memory junkie. I love memories, and I love memorizing interesting ideas that I find. It greatly frustrates me if I could not do it. When I was still teaching, I preferred teaching without books or notes, because I wanted to show my students that their instructor mastered what she’s teaching, and that she knows what she’s doing. Unfortunately, there was a lot of work to do, and sleep will always be sacrificed. I loved teaching, but sleep debt took a huge toll on me when it came to preparation.

[Researchers] have found that disturbed sleep patterns can impair memory, shrink the brain and raise stress levels….Further tests showed that those whose brains had shrunk had worse memories and higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Past research has shown that chronic high cortisol levels due to severe depression and post-traumatic stress is associated with temporal lobe shrinkage….Less than eight hours’ sleep a night can lower IQ the next day, while working night shifts increases the risk of diabetes, ulcers and divorce.How Lack of Sleep Affects the Brain, Paul Kendall of Daily Mail

R&O: Oh my. This got to me real quick. Sleep debt can SHRINK THE BRAIN!? IT CAN LOWER IQ!? So that’s why I went down from 126 to 112! The constant sleep deprivation and depression were the culprit. To be fair, I don’t fully trust the article as there are no evidences, but damn this is too hard to swallow. My poor brain. I’ll take care of you more from now on.

The first known study about the negative effects of sleeplessness was published in 1896. Since then, hundreds of studies have established that sleep loss impairs various cognitive functions and behavior, including arousal, attention, cognitive speed, memory, emotional intelligence, and decision making. These symptoms can start after 16 hours without sleep, and they get worse as time goes on.-What Happens to Your Brain When You Are Sleep-deprived?, BrainFacts.org

R&O: I think they started late on studying sleep behavior. I do agree with the points here, except for the time when symptoms start. If you read Alhola and Polo-Kantola’s research, you would know that people have individual biorcircadian rhythms, and people may have a longer or shorter one compared to our standard of 24 hours. At present, mine is irregular, but my body longs for at least 12 hours of sleep and not more than 12 hours of wakefulness. When I’m really tired, the symptoms come out as early as after 5 hours of wakefulness. What I’m trying to say is that it will depend on the person’s biocircadian rhythm.  

Basically, [Michele Bellesi of the Marche Polytechnic University in Italy] found that in the short run, chronic sleep deprivation can actually be beneficial, clearing potentially harmful debris and rebuilding worn circuitry might protect healthy brain connections. However, in the long run, the brain goes into overdrive and starts destroying worn-out cells and putting people at a risk of Alzheimer’s and other neurological disorders.Lack of Sleep Makes Your Brain Start Eating Itself, Alexandra Gerea of ZME Science

R&O: The good news is they’re still studying sleep behavior. The bad news is the results are horrible to deal with. I’m just glad that I do not have chronic sleep loss anymore, and that I’m a bit farther away from Alzheimer’s and dementia. But on the contrary, the results were only observed on mice, not humans…Well, I’m just hoping things would be different for us, but I guess not. If you read the article, you would know that this is a study that is the first of its kind, and nobody knows yet if you can reverse the damage you’ve done to your brain. Well, that’s depressing. Sleep debtors are doomed. Just kidding. I hope.

   So there goes my list of notable statements regarding our dear but depressing subject. I hope you enjoyed the read, and I hope you learned a lot from here. But in case you’re up for more information about sleep deprivation, watch these two wonderful TED Ed videos. Enjoy!

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