Skipping Sleep Is Bad for Your Brain, Your DNA and Your Social Life

Sometimes a lack of sleep can make you more likely to space-out; sometimes it can do much worse. (Photo: Dragana Gordi/Shutterstock)

We all know that getting a good night's sleep is important. But when we don't, a cascade of problems ensues. For starters, missing sleep doesn't feel good. It makes us less able to think clearly and adds an element of grumpiness to the the day. But a lack of sleep can be much more harmful than that. It can affect your nutritional choices, your relationships and it may even damage your brain.

It can affect your workday

A woman works on a computer while her male coworker drinks coffee.
Being less 'on' at work is one the most obvious signs you didn't get a good night's rest. (Photo: KieferPix/Shutterstock)

We typically reach for coffee after a restless night, but researchers say it doesn't take much sleep loss to make your job performance falter.

Losing just 16 minutes of sleep could be enough to cause poor judgement at work and fill your day with distractions. A 2019 study published in the journal Sleep Health found that workers are more likely to fall off task after a poor night's sleep. That, in turn, raised their stress levels.

"Findings from this study provide empirical evidence for why workplaces need to make more efforts to promote their employees' sleep," said lead author Soomi Lee, assistant professor in the School of Aging Studies at the University of South Florida, in a statement. "Good sleepers may be better performers at work due to greater ability to stay focused an on-task with fewer errors and interpersonal conflicts."

It can impact how you eat

Foods with magnesium
Add these magnesium-rich power foods to your diet to give your memory a boost. (Photo: Evan Lorne/Shutterstock)

Skipping sleep also may be related to poor nutrition. One study found that people who get fewer than the recommended seven hours of sleep per night get lower amounts of key nutrients including vitamins A, D, and B1, as well as magnesium, niacin, calcium, zinc and phosphorus.

"Our findings suggest that individuals with short sleep duration might benefit from improving their intake of these nutrients through diet and supplementation," said lead study author Chioma Ikonte, in a statement.

The research, which was presented at the annual meeting of the American Society for Nutrition, didn't say whether it was the lack of sleep causing the problem with nutrient intake or vice versa. The scientists suggest more research is necessary to see whether taking nutrient supplements might help sleep.

It can drive people away

woman and man not speaking
After a night of no sleep, you might be a grump and might not want to interact with other people. (Photo: fizkes/Shutterstock)

We've all had those days when we didn't get enough sleep and felt grumpy all day long — and those around us noticed.

According to a study from the University of California, losing sleep can affect your relationship with others.

"The less sleep you get, the less you want to socially interact. In turn, other people perceive you as more socially repulsive, further increasing the grave social-isolation impact of sleep loss," study senior author Matthew Walker, a UC Berkeley professor of psychology and neuroscience, told Medical Xpress. "We humans are a social species. Yet sleep deprivation can turn us into social lepers."

The study surveyed 18 college students on nights they got a normal amount of sleep and nights when they didn't. Researchers found that students who were sleep deprived stayed between 18% and 60% further away from other people compared to students who had a full night's rest. The researchers also analyzed brain scans and found that sleep deprivation increases brain activity in a neural circuit known as the "near space network," where the brain perceives potential incoming human threats. Additionally, another circuit that encourages social interaction was turned off by sleep deprivation, worsening the problem.

However, the feeling of loneliness and social isolation doesn't have to last forever. "On a positive note, just one night of good sleep makes you feel more outgoing and socially confident, and furthermore, will attract others to you." Walker said.

A lonely woman on a swingset
Sleep deprivation can affect your mood and lead to loneliness and social isolation. (Photo: Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock)

Not only can lack of sleep affect your social life, but it can also make you angrier.

Research from Iowa State University says even losing just a couple hours of sleep a night can make you angrier.

"Despite typical tendencies to get somewhat used to irritating conditions — an uncomfortable shirt or a barking dog — sleep-restricted individuals actually showed a trend toward increased anger and distress, essentially reversing their ability to adapt to frustrating conditions over time," said Zlatan Krizan, professor of psychology at Iowa State.

Krizan's team divided participants into two groups — one group that continued their normal sleep routine and the other group that slept two to four hours less for two nights in a row. Both groups were subjected to different sounds before and after sleep and rated them.

"In general, anger was substantially higher for those who were sleep restricted," Krizan said. "We manipulated how annoying the noise was during the task and as expected, people reported more anger when the noise was more unpleasant. When sleep was restricted, people reported even more anger, regardless of the noise."

It can damage your DNA

You can see the effects of sleep in your DNA. (Photo: Caroline Davis2010 [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr)

For many people, lack of sleep is par for the course. Working an overnight shift often means sleeping in shifts, which is the case for a lot of doctors.

A team from the University of Hong Kong studied 49 doctors — half of whom worked overnight shifts — to determine if sleeping less had any effect on DNA. The overnight group slept on average of two to three hours between calls with patients. The other group slept about seven hours a night. Researchers took blood samples for each doctor after a few days, and the results showed that the overnight doctors had more DNA breaks and less DNA repair gene expression.

But what does DNA damage exactly mean for someone's health?

Researchers said DNA damage may be linked to an increased risk for cancer and cardiovascular, metabolic and neurodegenerative diseases. "Although this work is very preliminary, it is clear from the results that even a single night of sleep deprivation can trigger events that may contribute to the development of chronic disease," senior study author Dr. Siu-Wai Choi, told Medical Xpress.

But, the team also noted that more research is needed to determine how large a role DNA damage plays in sleep deprivation and chronic diseases.

It can disrupt brain activity

woman with insomnia lying awake in bed
Being awake when you should be sleeping affects your mental performance. (Photo: Marcos Mesa Sam Wordle/Shutterstock)

A small study looked at the cause of those sleep loss-induced mental lapses. Researchers found that sleep deprivation disrupts brain cells' ability to communicate with each other. The researchers believe that disruption leads to temporary mental lapses that affect memory and visual perception.

For the study, researchers studied 12 patients with epilepsy, who had electrodes implanted in their brains for surgery. They were staying up all night because a lack of sleep can trigger epileptic attacks. While they were up, researchers had them sort images as quickly as they could. The task grew more challenging as the patients grew sleepier.

"We were fascinated to observe how sleep deprivation dampened brain cell activity," said lead author Yuval Nir of Tel Aviv University in a statement. "Unlike the usual rapid reaction, the neurons responded slowly and fired more weakly, and their transmissions dragged on longer than usual."

The study was published in the journal Nature Medicine.

For the record, you can't make up for the damage done by missed sleep once it's behind you. But you can minimize damage by banking sleep (that is, sleeping more in advance of a time you know you're going to sleep less).

And it can even cause brain damage

Brain processes
When you sleep, your brain is hard at work processing and storing information (and learning) from the day's events. (Photo: Tatiana Shepeleva/Shutterstock)

Another study, this one published in the journal Sleep, says pulling an all-nighter or regularly sleeping less than you should can actually damage your brain.

The study's researchers looked at specific proteins that are usually found in brain-injured people (specifically those who suffered concussions) and found that those protein levels were higher (20% higher) in people who worked all night, compared to a control group that got a good night's rest. While the levels weren't as high as the protein levels found in concussed people, the study shows that lack of sleep does real physical damage.

"It's during sleep that unimportant synapses are discarded and the important synaptic ties are strengthened," Emerson Wickwire, Sleep Medicine program director at Howard County Center for Lung and Sleep Medicine in Columbia, Maryland, and assistant professor at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, told Fast Company. Wickwire was not involved in the study.

When you lose sleep (or worse, don't sleep at all), you brain is unable to do those important repairs and maintenance activities. Outside of it affecting your brain, the work you do while sleep-deprived is also likely to be riddled with errors. Think you're better than that? Consider the significance of lack of sleep and ensuing human error in the Challenger disaster — as described in the final report of the Presidential Commission. These were mistakes made by highly trained, experienced professionals who simply needed more rest.

It can affect your blood pressure

In a small study at Penn State University, students were asked to try to get one extra hour of sleep a night. The students wore accelerometers on their wrist to record their movement and sleep. The first week, they were told to sleep as the normally would. The second week they had to up their sleeping game.

The researchers found that 77% of students increased their sleep by more than 15 minutes per night, and 66% got more than 30 minutes per night.

While it probably wasn't a surprise that the participants who got extra sleep reported being less tired during the day, there was an added plus. Those who got added sleep significantly reduced their systolic blood pressure by seven points.

“We were really blown away by the blood pressure results,” study leader Anne-Marie Chang, assistant professor of biobehavioral health and nursing, said in a statement. “Not only were the results statistically significant but they were also clinically relevant. Seven points is a large change in systolic blood pressure.”