How Sleep Loss Can Lead to Poor Brain Health

You roll over and the clock reads 3 am.  Have I been lying here wide awake for 4 hours already?  Did I get all gifts I need?  Am I ready for our holiday trip?  Am I stressed about the upcoming family event?  

Does this sound familiar?  Sleep deprivation and sleep disorders are very common and have lasting impacts on your day-to-day life, including impact on brain and cognitive health.  The brain particularly needs sleep to help process information gathered throughout the day and store new memories.1  Some people experience sleep deprivation year-round due to underlying sleep disorders.  Today we’ll be diving deeper into how poor sleep and sleep disorders can be detected and may affect your brain health, both in the short-term and long-term. 

Why you may not be getting the rest you need  


There are several factors that can impact our sleep quality, and, like many other aspects of health, stress is an important one.  Stress has been shown to negatively impact sleep in numerous studies.2  When we are stressed, a hormone called cortisol is released, which increases blood sugar, heart rate, and blood pressure, helping prepare the body for a “fight-or-flight” response.  Cortisol levels follow a pattern similar to the circadian rhythm that dictates our sleep-wake cycle.  It may make sense then that disruption in normal cortisol levels due to environmental or lifestyle stress can negatively impact sleep.3  In fact, both acute (short-term) and chronic (long-term) stress are associated with changes in sleep patterns and even insomnia.4 

 Sleep Disorders 

Sleep disorders also have a significant effect on the quantity and quality of sleep you may get, and they are more common than people think.  If you feel chronically sleep deprived, you may want to look into these: 

  • Sleep apnea is characterized by slowing down or even stopped breathing while sleeping.  It can be dangerous if left untreated and often leads to interrupted sleep and loud snoring.  In fact, obstructive sleep apnea is associated with an increased risk of Alzheimer’s.5    
  • Insomnia is associated with difficulty falling or staying asleep for an extended amount of time and feeling tired as a result.  Of particular note, insomnia happens even if a person has enough time and the right conditions where they would expect good sleep.  
  • Restless legs syndrome (RLS) is a neurological disorder that involves irresistible urges to move the legs (or arms as well). These urges can feel like aching, throbbing, itching, or crawling sensations that often occur when you are at rest, especially in the evening and nighttime hours, and are relieved when you move.6 
  • Chronic pain also has impacts on sleep, as it can lead to overactivation of the nervous system and can make it difficult to find a comfortable position to sleep in. 
  • Hot flashes and hormonal changes are common in women going through menopause and can lead to disrupted sleep.  Interestingly, recent research found that middle-aged women with more hot flashes that occur during sleep had more biomarkers of Alzheimer’s, suggesting hot flashes associated with menopause may also be an indicator of potential risk of Alzheimer’s disease.7 
  • Narcolepsy causes excessive daytime drowsiness and is associated with sudden sleep attacks, where one could suddenly feel very sleepy when driving, engaging in other daily activities, or even when laughing.  Narcolepsy could be confused with insomnia, but the difference is that narcolepsy is an overarching sleep cycle disorder, which causes sleep attacks during the day and disrupted sleep at night.8  


Let’s not forget about everyday habits, which can interfere with good sleep.  Lifestyle and environmental factors can also have a significant impact on your quality of sleep, and they include the sleep environment, usage electronic devices, alcohol consumption, and caffeine consumption.  Our earlier article on sleep discusses many of these factors, here. 

Warning Signs of Sleep Deprivation and Sleep Disorders:  Do you have a sleep problem?  

Common signs that you may be experiencing sleep deprivation include: 

  • Feeling groggy throughout the day, 
  • Difficulty with concentrating,  
  • Having memory issues,  
  • Irritability and mood swings, 
  • And frequent daytime naps.9   

Also, here are some additional hints that there may be more going on that could indicate a potential sleep disorder:  

  • Chronic difficulty falling or staying asleep, 
  • Loud snoring, gasping or choking while sleeping, 
  • Bothersome movements or unrest, tingling or prickly sensations in legs, 
  • Morning headaches,  
  • And sudden sleep attacks.10   

If you’re experiencing these, it may be time to see a doctor.  A doctor may request one of several sleep tests that can be done to evaluate different sleep disorders.  Common sleep tests include:  

  • A sleep diary, which is where you would note the time you go to sleep, wake up, and take naps over a one to two week period.  This can be very helpful to log for your personal knowledge and sleep habits, and it can be very helpful for doctors to assess if you indeed have a sleep disorder. 
  • The Maintenance of Wakefulness Test (MWT) measures alertness during the day and is often used to see if someone is responding well to a treatment for a sleep disorder.  
  • The Multiple Sleep Latency Test (MSLT) is used to diagnose narcolepsy and measures how long it takes someone to fall asleep in daytime naps.  
  • The Home Sleep Apnea Test (HSAT) is used to screen for obstructive sleep apnea and involves using special equipment at home while sleeping that measures different aspects of breathing.  
  • A polysomnography (PSG) is a sleep study used for sleep apnea and insomnia and measures brain waves during sleep. 
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The Short-Term and Long-Term Consequences of Poor Sleep on Your Brain  

In the short-term:  Sleep deprivation or poor sleep quality can impact the brain in the short-term by increasing stress, contributing to mood disorders such as depression, and leading to cognitive issues with memory, reaction time, and performance.  Other cognitive impacts of poor sleep include changes in executive function, emotional reactivity, memory formation, and decision-making.11   

In the long-term:  Poor sleep can result in physiological changes in the brain including increased oxidative stress and inflammation, elevated amyloid and tau protein buildup (the “plaques” and “tangles” in the brain associated with Alzheimer’s), white matter lesions (damage to nerve fibers connecting different parts of the brain), and reduced brain volume (brain shrinkage).  These physiological changes are associated with cognitive decline and an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease.12 

Proactive Prevention Against Sleep Loss 

While it can be frustrating to suffer from poor sleep quality or sleep disorders, there are several things you can do to help prevent sleep deprivation, which in turn supports your long-term brain health. 

  • Exercise can be very helpful to improve sleep quality.13  It can be hard to motivate yourself to exercise if you’re not sleeping well, but try to get some movement in during the day to support better sleep at night.  It’s important not to exercise too close to bedtime as it may make it harder to fall asleep.  Sleep and exercise are both important factors in cognitive functioning, and recent research suggests that having higher physical activity and optimal sleep is associated with better cognitive scores and a lower rate of cognitive decline over a 10 year period.14 
  • CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machines are an effective treatment for sleep apnea as they use air pressure to help keep airways open while you’re sleeping.  CPAP machines are often used in moderate and severe cases of sleep apnea, and research suggests that CPAP machines may improve quality of life in those with mild obstructive sleep apnea as well.15 
  • Relaxation methods like meditation or breathing exercises. There are several types of meditation practices you can try using different apps such as Headspace or Calm, or even YouTube videos.  To learn about some quick relaxation methods, check out this article.  One breathing technique that has been shown to be effective as an insomnia treatment is slow deep breathing, which involves breathing at a slow rate of about 6 breaths per minute, breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth.16  
  • Nutrition is also important for sleep, and we suggest eating more foods from the Mediterranean and MIND diets.  In fact, research suggests that higher adherence to the MIND diet is associated with a reduced risk of poor sleep quality, less daytime sleepiness, and lower odds of insomnia.17  Similarly, the Mediterranean diet is associated with indicators of better sleep quality.  One mechanism suggested to explain the link between the Mediterranean diet and better sleep is through the anti-inflammatory and antioxidative effects of nutrients in the Mediterranean diet.18 
  • Wearing an eye mask (or sleep mask) while sleeping has also been shown to help support better sleep.  In fact, wearing an eye mask was associated with less sleep disturbance, higher melatonin levels, and lower cortisol (stress hormone) levels.19  
  • Environmental and lifestyle habits can also help support optimal sleep.  The best way to sleep is an environment that is quiet, dark, and cool in temperature.  Maintaining a consistent sleep schedule is also helpful to improving sleep quality.  The blue light emitted by electronic devices suppresses the release of melatonin, the natural hormone that makes you sleepy.  It’s generally recommended to avoid electronic devices for at least one hour before you go to bed.  Alcohol and caffeine should also be avoided before bed.  Check out our previous article on sleep to learn more about the stages of sleep and how best to support high-quality sleep. 

If sleep troubles persist, consult with a healthcare professional for personalized guidance, or try implementing some of the suggestions above, as well as the tips included in our free guide “The Ultimate Guide to Getting a Good Night of Sleep.  Sleep is a cornerstone for brain health, and so it’s important to make it a priority.  This is even more important during the holidays – so  give yourself time and space to optimize your sleep quality to get the most out of this special season! 

Sometimes, it's the simplest changes that make the most dramatic impact on your well-being. RELEVATE, our core product, consisting of 17 nutrients from Mediterranean and MIND diets, backed by the experience of nearly 1/2 of our users reporting improved sleep quality.20  Learn more about RELEVATE for your nutritional support by visiting here. 


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  20. Survey conducted by NeuroReserve in March 2022.


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