How A Lack Of Sleep Can Affect Your Memory

We all know what it's like trying to get through a busy day after a poor night's sleep. Waves of grogginess strike throughout the day, and your mood and productivity can plummet. You might try to stave off your exhaustion with coffee and energy drinks, but deep down you know that you aren't feeling your best. It's no secret that sleep is important, yet approximately one out of three adults don't get enough sleep, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

In general, adults should aim for seven to eight hours of sleep every night, as explained by Cedars Sinai. However, there are a number of reasons why someone wouldn't be able to get enough sleep, and some of them are under one's control. According to the Sleep Foundation, making different lifestyle choices, like choosing sleep over binge-watching your favorite TV show, may contribute to a better night's sleep. To improve sleep quality, you can also cut out caffeine consumption during the afternoon and evening, limit the usage of electronics before bedtime, and avoid taking long naps throughout the day. A person's quality of sleep may also be affected by factors out of their control, such as aging, sleep disorders, or having an illness (per Cedars Sinai).

Not getting enough sleep can affect someone's physical and mental health, and one cognitive function that sleep deprivation appears to interfere with is memory. How can a lack of sleep impact memory exactly? Let's find out.

Memory consolidation occurs during sleep

Our memories enable us to recall events from our past that are most important to us. Thanks to brain structures, like the hippocampus, amygdala, and neocortex, we can remember things, like our personal likes and dislikes and special moments with our loved ones (per The University of Queensland). 

Memory consolidation occurs during both non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, making sleep a critical component of memory function, according to the Sleep Foundation. As explained by Dr. Robert Stickgold, a sleep expert at Harvard Medical School, "sleep seems to be a privileged time when the brain goes back through recent memories and decides both what to keep and what not to keep" (via News in Health).

In order to create a memory, the brain has to experience something new in the acquisition phase, make the memory solid through the consolidation phase, and be able to bring it back up in the recall phase (per WebMD). This means that a lack of sleep can contribute to having difficulty integrating a memory and recalling past information. 

Memory impairment may be a consequence of some sleep disorders, like insomnia and sleep apnea, according to the Sleep Foundation. Sleep-deprived individuals may have more trouble remembering things and can find it harder to focus or make decisions. For example, lack of sleep has been linked to poor word recognition performance in some studies, according to a 2022 article published in Frontiers in Neuroscience.