What Happens When We're Sleep Deprived, According to Neuroscientists

Neuroscientists have the final word on sleep

Sleep Deprived | health risks

Our bodies need good sleep to function well. If we’re sleep-deprived, critical functions of the brain, muscles, and organs function are all affected.

From our ability to learn, to remember, to defend against diseases, and to have a certain genetic code, sleep is an important factor.

If you’re getting less than four or five hours of sleep each night, you’re likely to be sleep-deprived. 

In this article, we will take a look at what neuroscientists and sleep scientists have found to happen to our bodies when we are sleep deprived. 

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Sleep deprivation increases the risk of stroke

Claudia Aguirre has a Ph.D. in Neuroscience and she loves to simplify complex scientific research in a fun way.

She explains why we should not celebrate a sleep-deprived culture or a status symbol.

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“Studies show that chronically sleeping fewer than six hours a night increases stroke risk by four and half times compared to those getting a consistent seven to eight hours of shuteye,” Claudia explains.

In her video “What would happen if you didn’t sleep?” Claudia walks us through the damage to our body and brain when we skip sleep. Here’s Laura:

Sleep deprivation leads to low testosterone levels 

Matt Walker is a Professor of Neuroscience and Psychology at the University of California. His research dives into the impact of sleep on health and diseases.

Matt explains that “men who routinely sleep just four to five hours a night will have a level of testosterone which is that of someone 10 years their senior. So a lack of sleep will age a man by a decade in terms of that critical aspect of wellness. And we see equivalent impairments in female reproductive health caused by a lack of sleep.” 

Matt is the bestselling author of the New York Times book “Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams.

In this eye-opening Ted Talk, Matt has one singular message, albeit a powerful one: sleep is your life-support system.

Listen to Matt for yourself in the video below:

Sleep deprivation can lead to Alzheimer’s disease

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Jeff lliff is a neuroscientist who for a good part of his career has explored the functions of the brain.

According to Jeff:

A series of recent clinical studies suggest that among patients who haven’t yet developed Alzheimer’s disease, worsening sleep quality and sleep duration are associated with a greater amount of amyloid-beta building up in the brain.”

Although the studies are inconclusive, this suggests that “the failure of the brain to keep its house clean by clearing away waste like amyloid-beta may contribute to the development of conditions like Alzheimer’s,” Jeff explains

In this talk “One more reason to get a good night’s sleep,” you will hear him describe how our brain which uses a quarter of the body’s entire energy supply gets important nutrients when we sleep.

Here’s Jeff on having a good night’s sleep:

Sleep deprivation reduces the ability to learn new tasks

As a circadian neuroscientist, Russell Foster’s expertise is in the sleep cycles of the brain.

“What we know is that, if after you’ve tried to learn a task, and you sleep-deprived individuals, the ability to learn that task is smashed. It’s really hugely attenuated. So sleep and memory consolidation is also very important,” Russell says in one of his captivating talks.

But it gets even more exciting. 

“What’s turned out to be really exciting is that our ability to come up with novel solutions to complex problems is hugely enhanced by a night of sleep.

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In fact, it’s been estimated to give us a threefold advantage. Sleeping at night enhances our creativity.”

Sleep deprivation affects memory consolidation and recall

The body of research on what happens to our unconsciousness when we sleep keeps growing.

For years, Greg who is a neuroscientist and engineer has helped kids discover how their brains and neurons work.

He concluded after one of his experiments:

I was a huge skeptic when I first heard that you could do better at a memory test just by playing sounds during sleep. But we replicated these experiments. The facts and memories we collect throughout the day are very fragile, and they are easily lost and forgotten. But by reactivating them during sleep, even without us being aware, it seems like we could make them more stable and less prone to forgetting.

Greg presents some of his findings here in his talk “How sound can hack your memory while you sleep.” Watch Greg here:

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Sleep deprivation can affect how we age

Dan Gartenberg spent the 10 years of his life investigating and inventing sleep technology. His research focuses on the deep sleep stage of sleep cycles. According to Dan:

When we don’t get the deep sleep we need, it inhibits our ability to learn and for our cells and bodies to recover. Deep sleep is how we convert all those interactions that we make during the day into our long-term memory and personalities. As we get older, we’re more likely to lose these regenerative delta waves. So in a way, deep sleep and delta waves are actually a marker for biological youth.”

Dan built smartphone and wearable apps, like the Sonic Sleep Coach Alarm Clock, for tracking sleep quality and playing sounds that make sleep deeper.

Let’s hear Dan out: