When you’re sleep deprived, you are at an equivalent of a .1% of blood alcohol content, according to science.
And it’s no secret that a third of the American population is suffering from sleep deprivation. According to research from the Centers for Disease Control, many people are getting so much less than the optimal seven to nine hours of sleep every night.
If you’re a student, a parent, or someone always having to meet deadlines, you’re not a stranger to doing all-nighters (probably with steaming pots of coffee). And you’ve probably also experienced the effects of having to function on little to no sleep at all the following day.
National Sleep Foundation board member and Clayton Sleep Institute founder Joseph Ojile, M.D. said the first thing you lose if your ability to sleep clearly. This means your concentration, judgment, and memory all take a hit in the first 17 hours without sleep.
In fact, at the 17th hour, your body functions the way someone at a .08% blood alcohol level would, and after a full 24 hours, it climbs to the .01%.
A study at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) looked at the effects of sleep deprivation in 12 patients. These patients had epilepsy and had previously gotten electrode implants in their brain (for a surgery not involving the study). It was through these electrodes that the researchers monitored the activity of their brain cells.
The participants were asked to stay up all night doing various activities throughout the night. Part of it was to ask them to identify faces, places, and animals as fast as they possibly could. A look at the patterns of electrical activity in their temporal lobes found that the more they got tired, the more their brains tried to keep up with the activity at hand.
Here’s a closer look at how sleep deprivation affects different day-to-day activities.
Imagine this: you’ve finally come home from a day at work after staying up the previous night struggling to meet deadlines. You’re ready to rest. You can already imagine your back hitting the mattress and your head coming down on your soft pillow and you’re tucking your body under the sheets.
But the moment you walk through the door and grab yourself a drink from the fridge, you notice the dirty stack of plates stacked high on the sink. Your roommate left their dirty dishes in the sink again.
And just like that, you hate them. You wish so many bad things upon them and imagine it happening, much to your satisfaction.
No, it doesn’t make you evil. It just makes you sleep-deprived. Research states that the longer you go without sleep, the more your emotions are heightened.
This could mean that the things that matter to you are compromised in your head — like how under normal circumstances you wouldn’t even mind the dirty dishes. Everything annoys you, and it’s a never-ending train wreck.
Your amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for processing emotions, just takes over when you’re tired. The reason it goes HAM is that the lack of sleep has disrupted its flow and connection with other parts of your brain that’s responsible for controlling your emotions.
Unfortunately, it’s not acai berry bowls or kale chips you’ll reach for. When you haven’t had sufficient sleep, your ghrelin – the part of the brain responsible for telling your body when it’s time to eat – amps its activity.
And to make matters worse, while your ghrelin levels go up, your leptin levels go down. Leptin is a hormone that tells your brain when you’re full. See the problem? When you’re sleep-deprived, your brain can only keep telling you to eat, but it’s not going to tell you to stop.
You’re most likely going to reach for your comfort foods, too – pizza, french fries, ice cream, burgers. Science hasn’t quite reached the answer to why we crave these foods as opposed to kale chips though, but we’ll keep you posted.
Like… are you okay there?
Your visual cortex takes a hit when you don’t get enough sleep. You’ll feel like you’re drifting – you find yourself staring at nothing for certain periods of time.
Not just that – seems like your sense of humor gets a little skewed, too. This is because your brain gets slower on the uptake, and you’ll struggle to get in those witty punchlines about 10 seconds too late.
Mental and visual lapses
When you don’t sleep, you not only rob your body of much needed quality sleep, you also refuse to give your neurons a chance to function properly.
Take the research at UCLA we mentioned earlier. While tracking brain activity using electrodes, they found that although some parts of the brain struggled to keep running under exhaustion, the parts of the brain that usually worked as we sleep were functioning normally.
The dangerous thing about not getting enough sleep? It interferes with our ability to take in information and put them into visual, conscious thought. Which means that if you’re driving and you’re running on no sleep, it’s going to take you seconds to register that a pedestrian is crossing. And this could lead to regrettable accidents.
Drowsy driving caused 800 deaths and 72,000 accidents between 2009 and 2013, data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said.
You’re going to get sick. And fast.
Sleep deprivation takes a toll on your health. It compromises your immune system! Your body is going to struggle fighting off the colds and the flu, and whatever bacteria lurks in your environment as you struggle to keep awake. Your body won’t have the same response to foreign invaders the way it could when you’ve had ample rest. Shudder.
What’s worse, there’s increasing evidence that lack of sleep is linked to a higher mortality rate! This isn’t an invitation for you to sleep in as much as you want, though. In fact, there are also supporting scientific evidence that exceeding eight hours of sleep also increases your risk of death from any cause.
Do it often enough and you inevitably risk your chances of getting…
You know how you struggle to remember things when you don’t have proper sleep? Or how you can’t tell whether or not the event you’re remembering is real or fake?
These phenomena are results of your hippocampus and your prefrontal cortex struggling to keep up. Your hippocampus is your memory center while the prefrontal cortex plays many important brain functions, including keeping your focus sharp.
It’s also going to lead to cerebral atrophy, which causes your frontal, parietal and temporal lobes to shrink. This is never a good thing. These parts of your brain are responsible for speech, understanding language, identifying left from right, behavior, judgment, movement, and even recognizing and understanding relationships.
Most importantly, the hippocampus is the first part of your brain that undergoes drastic changes when you have Alzheimer’s disease.
Studies have found that even just going without sleep for a night increases the beta-amyloid in the hippocampus and thalamus, which is the part of the brain responsible for motor movements and sensory signals.
Beta-amyloids are “plaques” that build up in the brain. Usually, sleep clears them away, but the longer you go without sleep, the more these plaques form into big clumps that block the signaling synapses in your brain. It’s also going to trigger inflammation in the brain.
Think of sleep as a “waste disposal system” of the body that allows it to discard any harmful material in the body, including beta-amyloid.