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Holiday stress. Work problems. Money concerns. Family issues — the worries that can keep you up at night are infinite. Develop a sleep debt from those worries, and you’ll pay a price in your ability to think, plan and manage your emotions.
“Sleep debt, also called a sleep deficit, is the difference between the amount of sleep someone needs and the amount they actually get,” said sleep specialist Dr. Raj Dasgupta, an associate professor of clinical medicine at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine. “Sleep affects our ability to think, react, remember and solve problems.”
Symptoms of daytime fatigue include a lack of motivation to accomplish everyday tasks, a lack of productivity at work, memory problems and a low interest in being social, Dasgupta said. There’s another side effect as well: You may find yourself going ballistic over the slightest slight.
“Sleep loss is strongly associated with reduced empathy and emotional regulation,” Dasgupta said, “often resulting in miscommunication and retaliation during conflict.”
Mood regulation occurs in the frontal lobe of the brain, where thinking, problem-solving and memory consolidation also occur.
“The frontal lobe is the highest energy user in the brain and the first to go offline or malfunction when deprived of energy by a lack of sleep,” said stress management expert Dr. Cynthia Ackrill, an editor for Contentment magazine, produced by the American Institute of Stress.
Without enough sleep, your brain functions less efficiently, affecting your coping skills, according to Ackrill.
“We don’t have the bandwidth to recognize our choices, get creative or just see that we can choose not to be irritated or irritating,” she said. “Irritability is one of the key signs of stress and poor sleep.”
Unfortunately, it doesn’t take long for sleep to affect our emotional stability, Dasgupta said: “Just one night of sleep loss impairs the ability to regulate emotions and the expression of them.”
We may be unaware
Perhaps you are living with a sleep deficit and believe you are making it though the day with no real impact. Experts, however, beg to differ. Research has found many people have little idea how much poor sleep has affected their mood and coping skills, said Dr. Bhanu Prakash Kolla, a sleep medicine specialist in the Center for Sleep Medicine at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.
“In experimental studies where they have partially sleep-deprived subjects, the subjective awareness of sleepiness and deterioration tends to plateau after a little while, but objective sleepiness and other performance-related measures continue to deteriorate,” Kolla said.
Therefore, don’t assume that if you “feel fine that you are fine,” said sleep specialist Kristen Knutson, an associate professor of neurology and preventive medicine at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago.
“There is no exact formula, but the longer you have been depriving yourself of sleep, the longer it will take to recover,” Knutson said. “If you deprive yourself of sleep for a week or more, it’ll take more than a day or two to fully compensate.”
To recover all of your cognition and mood regulation, however, you may need more than two days of sleep recovery, Kolla said.
What to do?
First, don’t reach for a sleeping aid to fix the problem, Dasgupta said.
“Sleep medications are seldom the solution for chronically poor sleep and impaired daytime functioning,” he said. “Long-term use of certain sleeping aids can lead to dependency, making users unable to sleep without pills, and there are withdrawal effects that impair cognition even after the drugs have been stopped.”
Instead, start with making sure that you don’t have an underlying illness or are taking a medication that might affect your ability to sleep.
“In addition to primary sleep disorders such as obstructive sleep apnea and insomnia, there are many other issues that can cause daytime fatigue, such as diabetes, heart disease and chronic pain issues,” Dasgupta said.
Then prioritize sleep — make it as important as eating, exercising, showering and all the other things you do on a daily basis.
“Consider sleep to be a pillar of health,” Kolla said. “Make sure your bedroom environment is quiet, dark and comfortable. If you are consistently sleeping poorly and this is impacting your daytime functioning, consider speaking to a sleep specialist.”
The American Academy of Sleep Medicine advises that if you’re an adult between the ages of 18 and 60, you are supposed to get seven or more hours of sleep each night. But according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a third of US adults get fewer than seven hours of sleep per night.
“We should set healthy sleep goals, including trying to go to bed at the same time most nights and aiming for seven to eight hours of sleep,” Knutson said. “Also, we should allow ourselves a transition period to unwind and relax between active wake and sleep.”
When it comes to all those worries, stress management expert Ackrill has some tips for coping: Don’t leave your mind to ruminate on something while you sleep — close the day by capturing what you need to remember in a list. Write down worries so you can dump them out before bed.
“Recognize when you are layering worries and don’t beat yourself up,” she said. “Don’t worry about not sleeping or feeling worried. Instead, consider some sort of ‘active relaxation’ practice, such as breath work, progressive relaxation or meditation.”
Practice positivity, but not the toxic version that is really denial, she added.
“Instead, find some way to continually bring your attention to what is working, what or who really matters to you, what habits support your feeling positive and grounded, and how to leverage your unique strengths to handle the pressures of life. There are tons of apps to help,” Ackrill said.