We all know that missing sleep doesn't feel good. It makes you less able to think clearly, focus well and makes most people feel more moody (in other words, grumpy). But a lack of sleep can do more than that. It can add an inch to your waistline, and it could also cause a little bit of damage to your brain.
Dreaming of a thinner waist
Published in the journal PLOS One, a U.K. study from the University of Leeds found that those who averaged six hours or so of sleep a night had about one inch more on their waistlines than those who were able to average about nine hours a night.
The 1,615 adults who participated in the study reported on things like how long they slept and what foods they ate while researchers collected blood samples for cholesterol and sugar levels and gathered measurements on blood pressure, weight and waist size over the course of the short study. How long they slept was compared to the other measurements.
In addition to thicker waistlines, researchers found that those who didn't count enough sheep also had reduced levels of HDL cholesterol, the "good" kind of cholesterol that removes "bad" from the body. This, in turn, helps to guard against various conditions, such as heart disease. Somewhat surprisingly, less sleep didn't align with a less healthy diet. Previous research had indicated a lack of sleep often resulted in bad eating choices.
Still, the findings from the study support the ever-growing evidence that sleep has an impact on the health, including obesity.
This is your brain without sleep
And it's not just your waist that's in trouble if you don't get enough sleep. A 2014 study, published in the journal Sleep, says that 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 (concussions) and found that those protein levels were higher (20 percent 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 to the brain.
"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 are better than that? Many of the most significant disasters of the last 20 years are due to lack of sleep and ensuing human error, including the Challenger disaster, the Chernobyl explosion, the Exxon Valdez Oil spill and plenty of others (and near-misses) — and these were mistakes made by highly trained, experienced professionals. Who needed more rest than they got.
How sleep deprivation disrupts brain activity
A small study in 2017 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).
This story was originally published in May 2014 and has been updated with new information.