October 24, 2021 3 min read
A lack of sleep normally makes people exhausted. But for some, a sleepless night or two seems to do the exact opposite: their energy levels go up.
If you’ve ever had a similar experience, chances are you’ve found this paradoxical effect of sleep deprivation surprising. Maybe you wondered what was behind this contradiction. Sleep has a recuperative role after all; it is an essential function that allows our brain and body to recharge for the next day.
There are two likely reasons why you may have more energy on less sleep: raised stress hormone levels and temporary changes in the brain’s reward system.
Stress can make it harder for you to get a good night’s sleep. And the opposite can also be true: a lack of quality sleep can leave you feeling stressed.
Research shows that acute sleep deprivation elevates cortisol levels and leads to a dysregulated hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. Cortisol is a stress hormone the purpose of which is to keep the body to stay alert when danger is lurking. It also increases energy production during stressful times. The HPA axis also plays an important role in our stress response, and it seems to be in overdrive after a period of poor or no sleep.
The above changes in your body’s stress response can lead to feelings of increased energy and alertness in some people.
And the effect may not be limited to people who skimp on sleep or have insomnia. Studies have found that sleep disruption from severe snoring or sleep apnea can have the same effects on the body’s stress response.
Your brain relies on sleep more than any other organ, which is why a lack of sleep normally leads to poor brain functioning. But sleeplessness can also lead to what looks like a temporary brain boost.
Studies on depressed patients, for example, show that sleep deprivation leads to temporary relief from depressive symptoms. Research has also found a strong link between insufficient sleep and hyperactivity in children.
And in 2011, researchers searched for the neuronal reasons for this paradox by examining the effects of sleep deprivation on the brains of healthy adults. What they found was that a lack of sleep amplifies the brain’s reward system, leading to the sleep-deprived group being blindly optimistic, among other things.
A later study published in a 2013 issue of the journalCerebral Cortex confirmed that sleep deprivation amps up the brain.
One theory for why this happens is that sleep prunes irrelevant synapses in the brain. A lack of sleep then leads to an excess of connections between brain neurons that can manifest as brain hyperactivity.
The temporary high of sleep deprivation is almost always followed by a crash marked by memory problems, mood swings, and trouble concentrating. Long-term consequences of inadequate sleep are even worse: high blood pressure, mood problems, and weight gain.
That’s why it’s a good idea to take immediate measures if you have trouble getting enough restorative sleep.
People who have trouble sleeping due to insomnia can seek help from their GP. But some measures you can take at home include improving your sleep hygiene and taking natural sleep aids.
If you experience poor quality sleep due to snoring, there are over-the-counter snoring solutions as well. See our tongue-stabilizing devices, which are clinically proven to improve sleep quality in people with primary snoring or mild apnea.
And do speak to your doctor if you still don’t feel rested after taking these conservative measures. Sleep is absolutely essential for normal brain functioning and your overall health.
Wright KP Jr, Drake AL, Frey DJ, et al. Influence of sleep deprivation and circadian misalignment on cortisol, inflammatory markers, and cytokine balance.Brain Behav Immun. 2015;47:24-34.doi:10.1016/j.bbi.2015.01.004
Nicolaides NC, Vgontzas AN, Kritikou I, et al. HPA Axis and Sleep. [Updated 2020 Nov 24]. In: Feingold KR, Anawalt B, Boyce A, et al., editors. Endotext [Internet]. South Dartmouth (MA): MDText.com, Inc.; 2000-. Available from:https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK279071/
Giedke H, Schwärzler F. Therapeutic use of sleep deprivation in depression.Sleep Med Rev. 2002;6(5):361-377.https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1087079202902352?via%3Dihub
Tso W, Chan M, Ho FK, et al. Early sleep deprivation and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.Pediatr Res. 2019;85(4):449-455.doi:10.1038/s41390-019-0280-4
Gujar N, Yoo SS, Hu P, Walker MP. Sleep deprivation amplifies reactivity of brain reward networks, biasing the appraisal of positive emotional experiences.J Neurosci. 2011;31(12):4466-4474.doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.3220-10.2011
Huber R, Mäki H, Rosanova M, et al. Human cortical excitability increases with time awake.Cereb Cortex. 2013;23(2):332-338.doi:10.1093/cercor/bhs014
Insomnia. Cleveland Clinic. Last updated October 2020. Available athttps://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/12119-insomnia#outlook--prognosis
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