How sleep deprivation increases the risk of mental illness

By Vladimir Marchenko

During sleep, not only the body rests, but also the brain "reboots" itself. Depriving it of a well-deserved rest can lead to serious mental disorders, so a bad mood or constant drowsiness will be the least of the problems. Today we will explain why having a full sleep is so important for our mental health and what are the consequences of a regular lack of sleep.

The benefits of sleep for the brain

Sleep brings tremendous benefits to the body (it is not for nothing we give it up to 30% of our lives). It will take more than a dozen pages to write down a detailed description of all the benefits. In short, during sleep, resources consumed per day are replenished (including mental activity, which is manifested in the restoration of neurons). There are processes that contribute to the rejuvenation of the body and muscle building. There is also a secretion of hormones, activation of the immune system, self-cleaning (the work of the glymphatic system that removes toxins) and auscultation of internal organs functionality.

Very important processes related to the brain activity occur during sleep as well. In particular, the reactivation, processing and consolidation of memories with their further transfer from a short-term “storage” to long-term. All the unnecessary information is being deleted, and daytime events are being “skimmed” in the frontal lobe of the brain. Good sleep improves mood, focus and the ability to make decisions quickly.

The effect of sleep deficiency on mental health

Violation of night rest is fraught with rapid and profound changes in the psyche, and insomnia torture is still considered one of the worst. With sleep deprivation, the concentration of stress hormones - adrenaline and cortisol - in the blood rises, and blood pressure also rises. The heart rate is broken and the immune system suffers. As a result, the stress level goes off scale, which only provokes even greater insomnia (and sometimes insomnia increases stress). Hallucinations begin already after two days without sleep (truckers are aware of the so-called “black dog” phenomenon, which begins to “flicker” before the eyes on the road), serious changes in the psyche are recorded after a week of lack of sleep.

Violation of night rest is fraught with rapid and profound changes in the psyche. No wonder insomnia torture is still considered as one of the worst. With sleep deprivation, there is an increase in the concentration of stress hormones - adrenaline and cortisol, and blood pressure also rises. The heart rhythm and the immune system suffer. As a result, the stress level goes off scale, which provokes even greater insomnia (and otherwise, insomnia increases stress). Hallucinations begin taking place after two days without sleep (truck drivers are aware of the so-called “black dogs”,  which begins to “flicker” before the eyes on the road), serious changes in the psyche are noticed after a week of lack of sleep.

For a long time, scientists believed that insomnia is a byproduct of mental illness. In the 1980s found that out of 100 patients referred to a general psychiatric hospital, 72 had insomnia. However, later it was clarified that it is regular lack of sleep (chronic insomnia) that provokes mental disorders. Most often, it is observed in people suffering from psychosis, schizophrenia, anxiety disorders, dementia, post-traumatic stress disorder, panic attacks, obsessive-compulsive and phobic disorders, alcoholism and suicidal tendencies, where insomnia is not a symptom, but a cause of mental change.

In order to assess the effect of lack of sleep on the brain, Harvard researchers studied a group of students which haven’t slept for 35 hours in a row. Their indicators were compared with the control group, resting as usual. Then both groups were shown some neutral and some disturbing pictures. As a result, the control group reacted more logically and predictably to the displayed pictures, and the “fight or run” stress response prevailed in the test group. In other words, with a lack of sleep, inadequate processing of external signals and threats took place, and their false perception intensified. Ultimately, this could lead to irrational and violent behavior both in relation to oneself and to others.

woman with sleep deprivation
In psychiatric disorders, insomnia is observed in about half the cases; it is called the “mirror” of mental health

In 2017, the results of experiments conducted by the BBC channel in conjunction with Oxford University were announced. The authors recruited people without sleep disorders. The first three nights they were allowed to sleep for 8 hours, and the next three only 4 hours. Every day, participants reported on their physical and psychological state and kept video diaries. Indicators of the functional activity of the brain were recorded with a special device. It turned out that the subjects had increased levels of stress, anxiety, longing, signs of psychosis and distrust of other people. The results also coincided with a previous study on the effect of lack of sleep on the mental state in which 3,700 students with sleep disorders participated.

D. Freeman, a professor of clinical psychology at Oxford University, believes that lack of sleep causes negative thoughts, which in turn lead to mental disorders. Of course, a few sleepless nights a month will not lead you to doctors, but with a more chronic lack of sleep, the risk of such a visit will significantly increase.

How sleep deficiency affects adolescent mental health

The psyche of children is especially vulnerable to a lack of night rest. Having a busy schedule, a teenager needs to sleep at least 9-10 hours (sleep recommendations for age groups are given in Table 1). If a teenager does not get enough sleep regularly, he may experience the following disorders:

  • poor performance;
  • loss of interest in learning and self-study;
  • distraction;
  • aggressiveness and defiant behavior;
  • inability to communicate with peers;
  • hyperactivity / lethargy;
  • obsession with own experiences;
  • thoughts of harming yourself or others.

Most often, psychological problems were observed in those children who went to bed after midnight and developed inversely with the length of sleep. This was also confirmed by the study of the Dose-Dependent Associations Between Sleep Duration and Unsafe Behaviors Among US High School Students (2018), which revealed that only about 30% of students slept in due time, and the rest showed a tendency to unsafe behavior towards themselves and society.

Parents often associate this solely with prolonged computer games or falling asleep with a smartphone, but often teenage insomnia can be a reaction, for example, to bullying at school. Therefore, parents must first establish the true cause of the problem.

Table 1:

Symptoms of sleep and mental disorders

Is it possible to recognize an incoming mental disorder by indirect signals? Yes! The following symptoms usually have an increasing order and may cause various mental illnesses:

1. Drowsiness. The first sign of sleep disturbance is drowsiness. Sleepless nights periodically happen and you should not worry much about it if your next and further nights normalize. It is much worse when insomnia becomes systematic and lasts for several days in a row or even regularly for several weeks.

2. Mood swings. If your irritability, anxiety, and nervousness are increasingly manifest, your sleep problems are more likely to become serious. In the long run, this can provoke depression and suicidal thoughts.

3. Lack of concentration. Defocusing and the inability to concentrate is another sign of prolonged sleep disturbance. This can be fatal for some people (drivers, pilots, etc.).

4. Loss of performance. A person deprived of sleep starts “stalling” mentally. In some ways, this condition is similar to alcohol intoxication, which causes the inability to manage simple routine tasks.

5. Amnesia and cognitive impairment. Not only the mechanism of long-term memory formation is disrupted, the short-term memory also suffers along with the ability of thinking critically. A person struggles to remember things that happened minutes ago, often asks for a question again and becomes impulsive in judgments.

6. Сonfusion, hallucinations, paranoia. In the case of prolonged sleep disturbances, it may become a problem to determine the time and place, to identify the differences between fictional and real images.

! If you register serious or even scary problems with your sleep and psychoemotional state, you must consult a medical specialist !

Methods for improving sleep quality

The time period for restoring the quality of sleep will depend on how “advanced” a particular situation is. Sometimes it’s enough just to go to bed early or stop using a smartphone before going to bed, though in other cases it may require serious intervention with medications. In any case, it is better to consult a specialist before self-medication. However, some steps can be taken right now:

changing lifestyle. Refusal of nicotine, alcohol, coffee in the afternoon will help you quickly slip into the arms of Morpheus. Any artificial stimulants, including spicy, chocolate with soda, will make you constantly roll over and fall asleep much later;

moderate physical activity. Performing simple exercises, without excessive weights or marathons, will help to alleviate stress and balance the hormonal level. It should be done no later than 2-3 hours before bedtime;

sleep hygiene. First of all, this includes keeping a schedule for going to bed and waking up. The body gets used to the regime, which allows it to fall asleep faster and wake up more easily. You also need to create a complete silence in the bedroom (with the exception of relaxing sounds or melodies) and the absence of light;

relaxation and meditation. Breathing exercises and relaxing practices help clear the mind, get rid of obsessive unpleasant memories and fall asleep without experiencing anxiety;

medicines. If self-treatment methods do not work, you can ask your doctor for a prescription. In this case, a consultation is required to select the necessary drug and dosage.

One of the new ways to prevent sleep disorders is Hypnopedia application. It provides a comprehensive approach whenever you go to bed or wake up. Relaxing sounds and their combinations will help you fall asleep faster. The built-in “smart” alarm clock will wake you up at the optimal time for your body. The main “feature” of the application is the set of short inspirational statements (affirmations) that are played during your sleep without waking you. This occurs at the specific phase of sleep, based on data received from Apple Watch sensors. Affirmations supplant negative daytime memories, help the brain to focus on good and strengthen mental health in the long run. In the morning, you can see your sleep data in the Statistics tab and understand the progress.

Ссылка App Store
happy awakening with hypnopedia

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Thus, sleep quality is very important for human health. It is connected with emotional balance. The deterioration of one thing inevitably leads to problems with the other. However, if simple preventive measures are taken, many problems can be avoided and you can feel harmony with yourself and the world around you.

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