7 Ways Not Getting Enough Sleep Literally Changes Your Brain

by Kyli Rodriguez-Cayro

We often treat sleep as an afterthought, rather than a priority. But getting just enough sleep plays such a crucial role in our mental and physical wellness. Making sure you get good sleep has amazing health benefits — that includes lowering stress, improving your overall quality of life, reducing inflammation, making you more attentive, and boosting your mood. But not getting enough sleep can have pretty annoying, if not downright awful side effects. Not getting enough sleep can literally change your brain — and no, not for good.

In order to reap the health benefits of good sleep, the National Sleep Foundation recommends adults between the ages of 18 and 64 should sleep between seven to nine hours every night. However, for many of us, that's easier said than done: According to a 2016 report from the CDC, over one-third of adults in the U.S. (aka, over 40 million people) report regularly not getting enough sleep every night. When you don't get enough sleep, your circadian rhythm — aka, your body's natural clock that makes you feel wakeful at certain points in the day, while tired during other points — is disturbed. And when your circadian rhythm is interrupted, or you are sleep-deprived for even just one night, it can wreak havoc on both your body and your mind. From disrupting hormone production to disrupting neurotransmitters, here are seven ways a lack of sleep changes your brain.


It Impacts How Your Brain Communicates

Missing a night of restful sleep can definitely make your body feel fatigued the following day, but it has a similar effect of your brain. A 2017 study found that sleep deprivation can actually slow down your brain cell activity, making you unable to function or think as well as you normally do. Your brain, like your body, relies on sleep to recharge, relax, and rest up so you can get along without feeling foggy in the morning.


It Can Trigger Symptoms Of Depression

While mental health disorders like depression can cause or worsen sleep-related issues, sleep deprivation (or conversely, too much sleep) can also worsen symptoms of depression. Research published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry in 2006 found "those whose sleep duration was less than six hours, and those whose sleep duration was eight hours or more, tended to be more depressed than those whose sleep duration was between six and eight hours."


It Hurts Your Hippocampus

The hippocampus is a region of the brain that plays an important role in the formation of long-term memories, learning, and emotion. And a lack of sleep can be pretty damaging to it: A study conducted in 2016 revealed that just five hours (yes, five) of sleep deprivation can negatively impact neuron connectivity in the hippocampus, meaning that a lack of sleep can impair your memory. Luckily, the scientists also found this harmful effect on the hippocampus' function was reversed in mice after just three hours of uninterrupted sleep. So, if you didn't get your recommended seven hours of sleep last night, try to catch extra Z's for the sake of your brain and memory.


It Can Upset Your Brain's Emotional Center

There's a scientific reason behind why you may feel cranky after a sleepless night. A 2015 study from Tel Aviv University (TAU) discovered that sleep deprivation after just one night led to a hyperactive amygdala — aka, the area of your brain responsible for processing emotions and identifying danger. This caused emotional dysregulation in study participants, and made them more likely to react emotionally to negative images. Sleep is a super important component in maintaining not only physical health, but it can also help keep you emotionally balanced.


It Can Make You Make Risky Decisions

When you don't get enough sleep, the parts of your brain that weigh in on making decisions suffer. Forbes reported a 2017 study discovered that people who slept five hours a night, versus eight hours, began to make more impulsive and riskier choices. And the likelihood of making impulsive decisions increased the more sleep deprived they became. Moreover, researchers found the study participants didn't even realize their decision making skills had been compromised by a lack of sleep — which is a risky combination all around.


It Stops You From Producing Melatonin

According to, melatonin is a hormone naturally produced in your pineal gland that is essential to maintaining a heathy sleep cycle. However, when your circadian rhythm is interrupted by a lack of sleep, your melatonin production is also disturbed. As Livestrong reported, scientists believe low levels of melatonin can play a role in various health issues, such as seasonal affective disorder, cancer, high blood pressure, and even in aging your brain faster.

Though there are melatonin supplements on the market, they are not the best replacement for your body's natural melatonin. Consumer Reports reported in 2016, "Melatonin [tablets] can ease sleep problems caused by shift work or jet lag. But overall, people taking the drugs fall asleep only seven minutes faster and sleep eight minutes longer on average, according to a 2013 analysis in the journal PLoS One." So, try to take advantage of the melatonin your body makes if you can.


It Can Affect Your Motor Skills

Much research, including this study from 2014, have shown that a lack of sleep can cause a significant decrease in cognitive functioning related to fine motor skills and coordination. This is especially scary when you think about the effect of this on people who rely on their motor skills, like drivers or doctors.

Every once a while, it's totally normal to sacrifice sleep for a night out with friends, or to work on a final paper your need to finish. However, don't forget that if you your brain to be healthy, get restful sleep on the reg.