Sleep and Your Brain Health

Compiled by Kaveh Farrokh (Ph.D.), Counsellor & Learning Specialist at Langara College Counselling Department.


The importance of sleep for student success is perhaps best summarized by in the following article (An Underappreciated Key to College Success: Sleep) by Jane E. Brody in the New York Times (August 13, 2018). Below are key highlights from that article:

College students who fail to adopt more wholesome sleep habits are more likely to find themselves unable to handle their chosen course load and less likely to reach their academic potential, according to a national study of more than 55,000 college students.

The study, by Monica E. Hartmann and Dr. Prichard of the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., found that for each additional day of sleep disturbance a college student experienced each week, the likelihood of dropping a course rose by 10 percent and grade point average fell by 0.02, even when most other factors known to influence academic success were taken into account.

“One in every three or four students nationally fails to graduate,” Dr. Prichard said in an interview. “If their sleep were improved, their likelihood of graduating would too. Nothing gets worse with better sleep, and a lot of things get better.”

Robert Stickgold examines the critical role of sleep on mind and health in the Summer 2017 Special Collector’s edition of Scientific American Mind (citation of the article is provided in “references” below). We will discuss Stickgold’s report as well as other research and resources for students and faculty.

The importance of sleep on mind and overall health has been greater than has been generally assumed. To put simply, sleep deprivation can have a (very) adverse (or negative) impact on a person’s mental and physical health. Note that student “crammers” often engage in sleep deprivation to cram for exams and rush to finish assignments on time. While cutting back on sleep to “make more time” for school may seem like a good idea, it is in fact (literally) bad for your health. Stickgold summarizes how sleep deprivation damages your mental and physical health in your (1) Central Nervous System (CNS), (2) Immune System and (3) Endocrine System. We review these findings below and also provide you with resources and handouts.

Sleep deprivation and Your Central Nervous System (CNS)

Your brain is the key center of your CNS. Sleep deprivation has a very big impact on your  brain (and entire CNS) by lowering your brain’s learning and memory performance. Your emotions are also negatively impacted by sleep deprivation. This is not surprising as the Limbic System and Basal Ganglia of your brain act as “emotional” centers and also also connected to your temporal and frontal lobes which are essential to your learning, memory, creativity, problem solving, critical thinking, planning and time management. See the below handouts for more information:

As noted in s report in the Guardian (August 23, 2016) sleeplessness causes the brain’s neuronal electrical activity to become ‘muddled’. As reported in the Guardian:

researchers show … that sleep resets the steady build-up of connectivity in the human brain which takes place in our waking hours. The process appears to be crucial for our brains to remember and learn so we can adapt to the world around us. The loss of a single night’s sleep was enough to block the brain’s natural reset mechanism, the scientists found. Deprived of rest, the brain’s neurons seemingly became over-connected and so muddled with electrical activity that new memories could not be properly laid down.”

Put simply, the more a student cuts back on sleep the more they decrease their learning and memory abilities for school.

Sleep deprivation and Your Immune System

By cutting back on your sleep you also weaken your immune system.

A weakened immune system and inhibition of the actions of your white blood cells makes you more susceptible to colds, flu and infections. Notice that “Crammers” who have a habit of cutting back on sleep also become more vulnerable to colds, flu, etc. right around critical times like mid-terms, due dates for assignments, presentations, etc.

Sleep deprivation and Your Endocrine System

Another impact of cutting back on sleep is upon your endocrine system, which becomes less sensitive to insulin (produced by the pancreas). This can lead to weight gain and even obesity. Notice that the stress hormone Cortisol also leads to obesity and a weakened immune system. There is in a fact a study reported by the Guardian (February 29, 2016) that has found a direct between sleep deprivation and overeating. More specifically the study has found that sleep-deprivation boosts brain chemicals implicated in appetite and especially those increasing craving for salty, sweet and high-fat foods. Here as some quotes from the report in the Guardian:

... scientists … found that sleep-deprived people craved crisps, sweets and biscuits far more than healthier foods … researchers believe that skimping on sleep alters brain chemicals in much the same way as the hunger-boosting ingredient in cannabis … After several nights of poor sleep, healthy volunteers who took part in the study reached for snacks containing more calories – and nearly twice as much fat … When sleepy, the participants had terrible trouble resisting the snacks, even when they were full, said Erin Hanlon, who led the study at the University of Chicago.

For more on the importance of diet and its impact on our emotions see this: Your Diet and Your Brain

Sleep deprivation and Your Emotions

Let us now conclude the discussion on impact of sleep deprivations on our emotions. Often when students are in the “crunch times” (mid-terms, deadlines, etc. they will report of elevated stress and especially negative emotions. Interestingly students will attribute those feelings and the stress to having to complete assignments, prepare for exams, etc. However we often do not realize that simply the act of reduced sleep and/or sleep deprivation is itself a major contributor to stress. As noted earlier, there is also an emotional cost to sleep deprivation. As noted by Stickgold:

“When you are sleep-deprived, you form twice as many memories of negative events in your life as of positive events” (Stickgold, 2017, p.58).

As noted by Rachel Cooke (Guardian, September 24, 2017):

Sleep, or a lack of it, also affects our mood more generally. Brain scans carried out by Walker revealed a 60% amplification in the reactivity of the amygdala – a key spot for triggering anger and rage – in those who were sleep-deprived. In children, sleeplessness has been linked to aggression and bullying; in adolescents, to suicidal thoughts. Insufficient sleep is also associated with relapse in addiction disorders.


Stickgold, R. (2017). Sleep on it! Scientific American Mind: Mysteries of the Mind (Special Collector’s Edition), Volume 26, Number 3, Summer, pp.54-59.

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