What Happens To Your Brain When You're Sleep Deprived

When most people hear the words sleep deprivation, they probably think of something out of a spy movie. Days and days without any sleep at all. And while that is one form of sleep deprivation, it turns out that even one night without proper sleep has nasty effects on your brain. Most people know that sleep issues and depression go hand in hand. But the effects run much deeper than that.

A study published in the Journal of Behavioral Therapy and Experiment Psychology found that even one night without sleep impairs our executive function. This is your ability to make decisions and get yourself to focus, even on things you don't want to do. So if you're staying up all night to prep for a big meeting tomorrow, you might find yourself putting off all your work the next day because your brain is just too tired to cooperate.

Some scientists believe this is linked to the way sleep deprivation affects our circadian rhythm. Researchers at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Australia tell us that this disruption also affects our memory and information retention capabilities. That means all our all-nighters in college might have actually done more harm than good, since our brains can't recall all the information we stayed up to study.

The long-term effects of sleep deprivation

Longer periods without sleep — or even skipping a night's sleep with any regularity — can lead to longer-lasting issues. A 2012 study found that even short-term sleep deprivation can impair a person's reaction time. This generally means that they're slower to make decisions and come to conclusions. Worse yet, it means they are more likely to be involved in accidents, including the potentially fatal kind. Side effects of sleep deprivation don't get longer lasting than that.

Even if your missed sleep doesn't lead to a serious incident, it's going to affect the choices you make. In the case of food, there is a chemical reason for that. Sleep deprivation increases the level of ghrelin in our bodies, the hormone responsible for appetite stimulation. So the less you sleep, the hungrier you're going to be. Skipping sleep also increases your insulin resistance, according to the Journal of Endocrinology and Metabolism. Add those two side effects together and you're increasing your risk of diabetes every time you pull an all-nighter.

Nobody wants to miss the fun that can be had by staying up all night, especially if you work all day and your social life is limited to nightly outings. But the effects of staying up will eventually outweigh the benefits. There is even evidence that sleep deprivation makes it hard for us to tell if someone's facial expression is threatening or not, as outlined in this study in the Journal of Neuroscience. So opt for sleep when you can. Your body — and your mental health — will thank you for it.