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How and why does insomnia affect the mind?

Have you ever stopped to consider what happens in our bodies as we fall asleep? Does it ever cross your mind as to why it may be more difficult for certain people to get some sleep?

In our brains, there are vast numbers of neurones, which send electrical impulses through synapses. When these electrical impulses are sent, in a unified manner, a brain wave is produced. Brain waves convey information. The type of brain wave produced, depends on the activity that is being carried out. For example, an activity that requires a lot of concentration would produce brain waves that are faster (because more messages need to be sent to the target effectors, e.g. muscles) than activities that require the brain to be relaxed.

When our eyes are closed, just before we drift off, a type of brain wave called 3alpha waves’ are released. These are released when our brain is in a relaxed state but is still conscious. In the next stage of sleep, a second type of wave called ‘theta waves’ are released. The slowest type of brain waves that are found in our deepest states of sleep are called ‘delta waves’. There is a gradual transition, in the production and release of these waves, when we are in the process of falling asleep.

However, not everyone experiences these brain waves. 2Insomnia is a sleeping disorder where you have difficulty getting to sleep or getting enough sleep to feel refreshed in the morning.

There are many causes of insomnia, ranging from 1environmental conditions to uncomfortable beds to caffeine etc. But some of the main causes of insomnia are stress and anxiety.

4When a stimulator causes stress, the hypothalamus (a part of the brain which responds to different stimuli, located above the pituitary gland in the brain) releases cortisol, a hormone made in the adrenal glands. This hormone controls our mood, motivation and behaviour. When this hormone enters the bloodstream, it interacts and locks onto many different cells in tissues and organs. These cells are cortisol receptors and each cell has a different way of interacting with the hormone, therefore has a different effect on the body. One of the ways that cortisol affects our body, is by increasing our heart rate and blood sugar levels, preparing our body for ‘fight or flight’. This leads to our body having difficulty in relaxing which affects our sleep, causing insomnia.

5Two aspects of our life that are affected by insomnia are our learning and memory. The brain is very active, especially when we are sleeping, processing all the new information that we have gathered all day, therefore having enough sleep is important to be able to recall and understand the same information on a different day and keep it stored in our long term memory.

Other studies have shown that having sufficient sleep reduces the size of synapses. The synapse is the distance between two neurones, and is where neurotransmitters, that carry the information from an electrical impulse, travel through. Reducing this gap would decrease the time required to recall information, eventually improving our long-term memory.

People who suffer from sleep deprivation are more likely to have poor judgement and memory.

5Insomnia also effects our ability to control our emotions. 6Located, deep in the right and left temporal lobes of our brain are two amygdalae. One of the functions of this part of the brain, is to control our emotions. The frontal lobes are part of the cerebral cortex of the brain. They control our thinking and decision making. Usually, the frontal lobes respond to the stimulus and control our response. 7However, when someone suffers from insomnia, the amygdala takes over and the reaction given is very irrational and uncontrolled. This can be seen by people being quite cranky or getting emotional over seemingly trivial situations.

The Coronavirus pandemic has caused a measurable effect on both the mental health of adults and students, with a majority being an increase in the level of anxiety stemming from the uncertainty of the future, whether it be based on decisions of which university to go to, or the possibility of another, but worse, recession. This has led to many staying up later than usual and feeling tired in the morning.

One of the factors that has risen from the pandemic which could also affect sleep schedules, is the proportion of the day which has been spent in front of a computer screen. With the “new normal” of working from home, whether it be joining online meetings or online lessons, there are multiple studies which have shown the negative impact screen time has on our sleep, 8due to the exposure of the artificial blue light.

This means it is vital that we take extra care and try and do activities in the evening which are more relaxing, such as reading a book or going for a walk.


References

  1. “Insomnia”: 1https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/insomnia/
  2. “Insomnia”: 2https://www.bupa.co.uk/health-information/mental-health/insomnia
  3. “Alpha waves and your sleep”: 3https://www.verywellhealth.com/understanding-alpha-activity-3014847
  4. “How to Reduce Stress by Learning the Science Behind What’s Causing it”: 4https://www.inc.com/will-yakowicz/how-to-leverage-science-of-stress-to-your-advantage.html
  5. “Sleep and Mental Health: How Insomnia Affects Mental Wellbeing”: 5https://sleepcenterinfo.com/blog/sleep-and-mental-health-how-insomnia-affects-mental-wellbeing/
  6. “What is the amygdala?”: 6https://www.livescience.com/amygdala.html
  7. “Amygdala Hijack: When Emotion Takes Over”: 7https://www.healthline.com/health/stress/amygdala-hijack#overview
  8. “Screen Time and Insomnia: What It Means for Teens”: 8https://www.sleepfoundation.org/articles/screen-time-and-insomnia-what-it-means-teens

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