Why Insomnia Makes You Feel Like a Depressed Zombie
By Ben Spencer / The Daily Mail
Failing to get a good night’s sleep damages the wiring of the brain, research suggests.
Doctors have long known that people who suffer from insomnia are at risk of depression, anxiety and mood problems.
But now they think they have found the reason why - a lack of sleep warps the parts of the brain linked to emotion.
Scientists used high-tech brain scanners to examine the brains of 23 people with ‘primary’ or severe insomnia, who each reported trouble sleeping for at least a month.
The images, which showed the strength of the electrical currents throughout the brain, were compared with those of 30 healthy people.
The team found significant differences in white matter - the ‘wiring’ that connects the different parts of the brain.
Patients who were suffering from lack of sleep showed signs of damage to white matter throughout the brain, but most severely on the right-hand side, which tends to control emotion.
The corpus callosum - the section which connects the right-hand section of the brain to the left - was not working as effectively, they found.
The Chinese scientists, from Guangdong No.2 Provincial People’s Hospital, also found significantly reduced white matter integrity in the thalamus, which regulates consciousness, sleep and alertness.
Writing in the Radiology medical journal, they said: ‘The reduced [activity] in the body of the corpus callosum, as observed in our study, may be related to emotional and sleep perturbations in primary insomnia patients.
‘Impaired integrity in the body of the corpus callosum might be related to depressed mood in primary insomnia.’
Primary insomnia is associated with daytime fatigue, mood disruption and cognitive impairment, and often leads to depression and anxiety disorders.
Nearly all living things have an internal mechanism - known as the circadian rhythm or body clock - which synchronises bodily functions to the 24-hour pattern of the Earth’s rotation.
In humans, the clock is regulated by the bodily senses, most importantly the way the eye perceives light and dark and the way skin feels temperature changes.
There is growing evidence that altering this rhythm - for example by working antisocial hours or regularly travelling between different time zones - places a strain on the body clock and creates long term health problems.
What happens to your body when you have severe insomnia?
The new study suggests this may be because changing the body clock impacts on the brain.
Study leader Shumei Li said: ‘Insomnia is a remarkably prevalent disorder.
‘However, its causes and consequences remain elusive.
‘White matter tracts are bundles of axons - or long fibres of nerve cells - that connect one part of the brain to another.
‘If white matter tracts are impaired, communication between brain regions is disrupted.’
The study also found a loss of myelin, the protective coating around nerve fibres, in patients with insomnia.
The researchers said more work is needed - because although they found strong links between insomnia and white matter degradation, they could not be sure whether the sleep problems had caused the brain problems, or whether the brain problems had caused the insomnia.
A large British project in 2014 suggested people in the UK get two hours less sleep a night than they did 60 years ago.
The authors of that study, from Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Manchester and Surrey universities, warned that people have become ‘supremely arrogant’ by ignoring the importance of sleep.
Related Article: How to Program Your Mind While You Sleep
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