The Effects of Insomnia on the Brain

Written by: Lull Team



Time to read 12 min

Scientists and health experts have long known about the critical link between quality sleep and improved mental health, but the underlying cause of insomnia that isn’t caused by medical disorders or the use of stimulants has eluded them for years. A recent study comparing average sleepers with those suffering from insomnia used MRI imaging to examine the effects of insomnia on the brain, and it has shown that the sleep deprived patients have weakened connections in the thalamus – the area of the brain that controls sleep and consciousness. 

Although the researchers were unable to determine whether the weaker thalamus connections are what actually cause the insomnia or if lack of sleep itself caused the connections to weaken, the study has offered important clues for the origin and treatment of insomnia. Many of the study participants that complained of being unable to sleep had MRI scans that showed damage to the white matter of their brains, which has been shown to cause disruptions to the body’s biological clock and ability to maintain an optimal circadian rhythm. 

The extent of the abnormalities in the white matter of the thalamus was directly linked to the duration of participants’ insomnia, as well as their self-rated scores on a depression questionnaire – the worse the neural connections in the thalamus, the worse the sleep deprivation and depression. Since MRI scans of the brain can be affected by a number of factors, such as the age of the patient and the type of MRI machine begin used, researchers are eager to repeat this type of study with a larger group of participants in order to better understand the affects that insomnia has on the brain, including mood disturbances, such as depression. 

Researchers are also still unsure of the permanence of the abnormalities of the brain that are caused by insomnia. One thing is for sure – lack of sleep has a significant impact on the brain and neural functioning. Scientists have discovered that memory, focus, and mood are all impacted by sleep deprivation, and that they can all be improved with getting better quality sleep, more often. Sleep experts recommend developing regular routines when it comes to sleep, in an effort to make sure that you are not creating “sleep debt,” which is a perpetual lack of sleep caused by irregular sleeping patterns. They recommend that everyone gets a minimum of seven hours of sleep each day, and they make it clear that sleep debt is not something that can be repaid with playing catch-up by sleeping in on the weekends. 

One of the best ways to ensure that you’re getting enough sleep is to focus on creating an ideal sleeping environment. You can do this by keeping your bedroom free of electronic devices, dimming the lights, and maintaining a moderate temperature at bedtime. Your bed is also an important part of the ideal sleep environment, and your mattress should be comfortable and supportive in order to encourage quality sleep – memory foam mattresses have been found to offer the perfect combination of comfort and full-body support. 

Until researchers are able to pinpoint the specific and permanent effects of sleep deprivation on the brain, it’s better to play it safe and make sure that you’re getting at least the recommended minimum of seven hours of sleep each and every night. Your body (and your brain) will thank you!

Now, what about Long-Term Effects?

If you’ve ever had trouble sleeping, you’ve probably spent at least a little time pondering the long term effects of insomnia and just how it can affect the body – especially after reading all about the above insomnia study brain scan results. But maybe we should start from the very beginning and talk about just what this sleep disorder is, what causes it, and what you can expect when it comes to the effects of insomnia on your daily life.

What Causes Insomnia in the First Place?

Finding yourself wide awake and unable to sleep at night can be one of life’s most frustrating experiences, and not knowing why you can’t get the shut-eye you want and need just makes it even worse. And while getting better sleep is sometimes as simple as finding the best mattress for you so you can have a comfortable and supportive night in the sack, there are also some more serious causes of insomnia that you should consider in your quest for peaceful and refreshing nights. Let’s take a look at some of the most common causes of insomnia

Medical Conditions

There are medical disorders that can lead to sleep deprivation, and they range from the mild to the severe. With some of these conditions, they are what is causing sleep loss, while in others, it’s the symptoms of the medical disorder that are making it difficult to sleep. Some of the medical conditions that can cause insomnia include:



Chronic Aches and Pains

Endocrine Issues (such as hyperthyroidism)

Gastrointestinal Problems (such as acid reflux)

Nasal or Sinus Allergies

Neurological Conditions (such as Parkinson's disease)

If you find yourself having trouble getting to sleep on a regular basis, don’t just accept your insomnia (and the negative effect it’s having on your body) as a part of your life! Think over whether or not you might have any underlying health disorders that could be linked to your inability to sleep, and speak with your doctor about a course of action to take to help you get better sleep.

Depression or Anxiety

Insomnia can also be caused by mood disorders, such as depression and anxiety, thanks to shifts in hormones and physiology that we can all experience during certain times in our lives. Symptoms to look for in mood disorders that cause insomnia include:

Excessive Worrying

Feeling Overwhelmed

Hopelessness or Sadness

Low Energy Levels

Loss of Motivation

Sudden Changes in Mood

If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms and they are leading to a loss of sleep, you should speak to your doctor or mental health professional about insomnia treatment via cognitive or mind-body techniques that can help to calm anxiety, as well as the possibility of medications that can assist you in dealing with depression or other mood disorders.

Poor Lifestyle Choices

Insomnia can also be triggered by unhealthy behaviors and patterns that have been adapted over time that can be difficult to break and can have negative effects on both the body and mind. These poor habits can lead to sleep deprivation on their own or make insomnia caused by other issues even worse. Examples of how poor choices and habits can cause insomnia include:

Bringing your work home with you, instead of using the evening to unwind and relax.

Taking an excessive number of naps in the afternoon, instead of turning in earlier at night.

Sleeping in late to try and make up for lost sleep, causing a disruption in your sleep-wake cycle.

If poor lifestyle choices and unhealthy sleep habits are leading to you losing out on sleep, you should make every effort to address them immediately, as they are learned behaviors that can be changed with cognitive behavioral techniques. When you find yourself trying to adopt healthy sleep behaviors without having any luck, make sure to take the issue seriously and talk to your doctor about it, in order to get the recommended eight hours of sleep each night that you need to function at your peak each day.

Unhealthy Habits

There are certain foods, substances, and activities that can have a negative impact on your ability to get to sleep (and stay that way). If you’re having trouble sleeping on a fairly regular basis, you should take a look at what you’re eating and drinking throughout the day, as well as some of your other habits that might be less than healthy, to see if they could possibly be having an effect on your sleep patterns. Some of the unhealthy habits and substances that can cause insomnia include: Alcohol: Due to its sedating effect, alcohol can make you fall asleep faster initially, but it also causes sleep disturbances, which will keep you from achieving the deep sleep that you need to be well-rested. Caffeine: While a cup of coffee in the morning can be a great way to start your day, caffeine is a stimulant that can stay in your system for up to six hours, which can lead to insomnia if it’s consumed too close to bedtime. Nicotine: Also a stimulant that has been linked to insomnia, nicotine is found in cigarettes and other tobacco products, and it can cause you to have trouble falling asleep and staying that way throughout the night. Big Meals at Bedtime: Eating a heavy or spicy meal right before turning in for the night can lead to sleep disturbances due to gastrointestinal upset. Your body also has to work to digest the food you just ate, which can make it hard to get comfortable and relax after a big meal.

What are the Physical and Psychological Effects of Insomnia?

We all know by now that sleep is an important part of our overall well-being and the truth of the matter is that it’s just as integral as breathing or eating. While you sleep, your body is hard at work tending to both your mental and physical health, helping you to get ready for yet another day. Suffering from insomnia can have a serious effect on the body, and even just missing out on one hour of sleep, one night a week can cause a lack of energy and focus, as well as irritability and mood swings. The long-term effects of insomnia are even more serious, causing poor coordination and decision-making abilities, along with medical conditions like high blood pressure, diabetes, and thyroid disease. In fact, Harvard Medical School has found that insomnia is even capable of increasing your risk of death by up to 15% if you’re getting less than five hours of sleep a night on a regular basis. Let’s take a look at the negative effects that insomnia can have on the body…

Insomnia and Your Heart

Effects of insomnia on the heart can be dangerous and even deadly, with some of the cardiovascular issues that the chronically sleep deprived face being high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, and hypertension.

Insomnia and Your Brain

Insomnia leaves the brain exhausted and unable to perform the duties that are necessary for it to keep you happy, healthy, and productive. Some of the effects that insomnia can have on the brain include the inability to concentrate, stifled creativity, short- and long-term memory loss, and mood swings. Other risks of a sleep-deprived brain are hallucinations, mania, impulsive behavior, depression, paranoia, and suicidal thoughts.

Insomnia and Your Stomach

Weight gain is just one of the results of sleep loss and that’s almost entirely thanks to the effect that insomnia has on the digestive system. Losing out on sleep causes our bodies to produce too much cortisol, the stress hormone, and also lowers levels of leptin, the hormone which tells us that we’re full and satisfied. Insomnia can also prompt the body to release increased levels of insulin, leading to excessive fat storage, and even the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

Insomnia and Your Immune System

While we sleep, our bodies produce infection-fighting antibodies that help to protect us from contracting viruses like the flu and fight off bacteria that causes illnesses like the common cold. Sleep deprivation leads to a weakened immune system, which means that one of the effects of insomnia on the body is the inability to prevent and fight off sickness, and it can even raise the risk of developing chronic illnesses in the future.

Insomnia and Your Mental Health

The psychological effects of insomnia can also be staggering and include depression, anxiety, and even suicidal ideation. Those that have already been diagnosed with a condition such as bipolar disorder, alcoholism, or even ADHD might find that insomnia is one of the side effects that come along with their disorder and can even have a hand in exasperating it.

How to Beat Insomnia and Get Better Sleep

Now that you know just how insomnia can affect the body and the mind, it’s time to talk about ways to beat it and get the best sleep of your life – no more excuses! There are many ways to embrace sleep and give insomnia the boot, including how to know when it might be time for a new bed, having a warm cup of herbal tea in the evening, or practicing mindful meditation when you turn in for the night. Check out these 10 tips for leaving insomnia behind and getting better sleep from here on out…

  1. Set a Sleep Schedule: Going to bed and waking up right around the same times every day will help your body and mind to get into the swing of an ideal sleep-wake cycle. You’ll be able to fall asleep faster and wake up brighter and more refreshed when you’re on a set sleep schedule – and we do mean on the weekends too!
  2. Catch Up on Sleep ASAP: If you find yourself having to stay up later than usual on a couple of occasions, try and make up for your lost sleep as soon as possible, and do it by turning in earlier the next night, instead of sleeping in later, which could create a vicious cycle of being able to get to sleep the following nights of the week.
  3. Just Say No to the Joe: We all love a good cup of coffee in the mornings, but if you’re wanting to get some quality sleep each night, your best bet is to avoid any kind of caffeine after 2:00 in the afternoon, since caffeinated substances can stay in your system for six hours, keeping you stimulated when you should be prepping for sleepy time.
  4. Pass on the Booze at Bedtime: Yes, alcohol can help you to doze off easier, thanks to it being a sedative, but it also causes sleep disturbances during the night, as well as preventing you from achieving the deep, restorative sleep that you need to be happy and healthy.
  5. Hit the Gym in the Early Evening: Exercise can be a great way to give yourself a boost during the day, but it tends to leave your core temperature elevated, making it difficult for your body to cool down so it can feel relaxed and drowsy for bedtime. To get your best night of sleep, try to avoid strenuous physical activity at least three hours before going to bed.
  6. Cool Things Off: Sleep experts have found that the ideal sleeping temperature is somewhere between 60 °F to 68 °F due to the human body’s need to stay cool in order to fully relax, without being so cold as to engage its natural need to protect its core temp from dipping too low. Keeping your bedroom right around 65 degrees Fahrenheit at night should be the sweet spot for drifting off to Dream Land.
  7. Keep the Lights Low: You also want to keep the lights dim in your bedroom to encourage the production of the sleep hormone, melatonin, which plays a vital role in helping you to get high-quality sleep each night. You should also avoid bright lighting a few hours before heading to bed.
  8. Ditch Your Devices: Keep your bedroom a haven for sleep by leaving the electronics out! Your best bet is to leave anything that emits “blue light” out totally – that means no television, iPads, smartphones, etc. But if you simply must have your electronics in the bedroom, be sure and turn them off at least two hours before bedtime, in order to avoid any stimulating effects they might have on you.
  9. Take the Time to Unwind: One of the most important things that you can do to promote better sleep each night is to set aside half an hour for relaxing before bed. Your body needs a buffer between a day of stress and a night of rest, and you can help it get there by imbibing in your favorite relaxing activity. You could have a cup of warm herbal tea, read a book, take a warm bath, or even practice some light yoga moves.
  10. Invest in a Better Bed: If you’ve tried everything and you still can’t seem to get the rest you need to function at your peak during your days, you might need to consider investing in a premium memory foam mattress, and saying goodbye to your lumpy innerspring bed for good. Memory foam has been shown to provide therapeutic spinal support, relief from pressure on your joints through even weight distribution, and a cooling effect for the ideal sleeping temperature.

And the best part? The Lull mattress is backed by a 10-year warranty and tons of stellar customer reviews, is delivered right to your door, and it won’t cost you an arm and a leg (unlike some of the options at the big-box mattress retailers). How sweet is that?