Sleep deprivation causes a lot of imbalances and changes in the body and brain. After a sleepless night, our brain starts processing information in a different way. For some people, it is euphoria that they feel after an all-nighter. Sleep deprivation is linked to dopamine release (an attempt to prolong our wakefulness), and one of the effects of dopamine is a strong positive outlook.
When observed by professionals, people with clinical depression were shown to improve their state after only one night of not sleeping. However, there is a dark side to sleep deprivation and euphoria – if frequently practiced, this behavior is usually linked to other, addictive, behaviors and comes together with drug and alcohol abuse. Sleep deprivation and euphoria make an interesting topic for research.
What does sleep deprivation do to your emotions?
Sleep deprivation causes a depressive and unstable mood. Many people experience sleep inertia and show signs of irritation and anxiety after one or more nights of sleep loss. Those who suffer from chronic sleep deprivation are at high risk of suffering from severe mental health problems and illnesses.
Apart from these problems, long-term effects of sleep deprivation are numerous health issues and diseases, including weight gain, heart problems, and sleep apnea.
However, a short period of sleep deprivation can make some people happy and euphoric – as such, they are likely to have a positive outlook on situations or opportunities they are facing.
What’s the role of dopamine here?
Our bodies increase dopamine in order to keep us awake. The main reason for this is the fact that dopamine blocks melatonin (the ‘sleepy’ neurotransmitter). This way, our body is trying to prolong the time we spend in wakefulness through chemicals it is able to produce. However, dopamine also makes us happy, so some people feel ‘euphoric’ as well as alert.
Dopamine is released when we do pleasurable activities, and the rewarding feeling makes us want to do them even more. This goes for sports, but also for various addictions.
Going out and staying awake all night can produce euphoric effects (especially if paired with alcohol or other psychoactive substances). Making decisions in such a state could be dangerous.
Dangers of euphoria
A study published in the Journal of Neuroscience in 2011 looks into how our perception changes and how much sleep-deprivation triggered euphoria can lead to a negative outcome.
When testing the perception, the researchers showed different pictures to a group of well-rested individuals and a group that was deprived of sleep. The task was to decide whether the pictures were pleasant or neutral, in their opinion.
The results showed that sleep-deprived individuals were a lot more likely to describe pictures as ‘pleasant’. This is due to dopamine and many brain areas that were activated as a response to positive emotional stimuli.
The researchers warn that this big difference in information processing could mean that a person might make poor decisions when sleep deprived. One can easily expect (and be sure about) the positive outcome of risky behavior, which may or may not include gambling, drugs, or interaction with strangers.
Something that a rested brain perceives as neutral or negative, a sleep-deprived brain may experience as positive, and make decisions accordingly.
Sleep deprivation to treat depression
There have been a number of studies which tested sleep deprivation on patients with depression. It turned out that was a great idea.
In depressed people, certain brain areas are hyperactive (more precisely, these areas are orbital medial prefrontal cortex, the ventral parts of the anterior cingulate cortex). Hyperactivity is expressed as increased metabolism of nerve cells and higher blood flow in these areas.
Sleep deprivation, which has a negative effect on the brains of other people, helps decrease the blood flow and metabolism of the hyperactive areas, stabilizing them. Dopamine release is tightly linked with the antidepressant properties of such a treatment. Some authors claim that positive results of only one sleepless night can remain for months, whereas others argue that the positive effect is very quickly reversed after recovery sleep.
Bipolar disorder, sleep deprivation and euphoria
Those who suffer from bipolar disorder shift between euphoric (manic) and depressive episodes which usually last for days. A study showed that euphoric mania is in most cases triggered by sleep deprivation (which might happen after working a late shift, or any other causes for short hours of sleep).
Percentage of those who get depression after a lack of sleep is significantly smaller but still exists. It should be noted that women are more likely to suffer from either of the states than men if they skip a good night’s sleep.
The euphoria of a person with bipolar disorder
When a bipolar person gets into the state of euphoria, they feel like they have infinite energy and are unable to sit still, let alone fall asleep. Their minds are buzzing with ideas – whether they are creative or not. In the middle of the night, a bipolar person will decide to go shopping, clean up the house, or go out and indulge in risky sexual behavior.
During the whole time, they think sleep is a waste of time. They fell really good and want to use their time to make more money, travel, or meet new people.
This is not the same as insomnia, because an insomniac feels bad for not being able to sleep. An insomniac will suffer the consequences related to sleepiness and be depressed about it. Euphoric mania, as one of the mood swing poles, feels great. A bipolar person will believe to have finally found happiness and joy until the mania wears out.
- Gujar N, Yoo S. S, et al. Sleep Deprivation Amplifies Reactivity of Brain Reward Networks, Biasing the Appraisal of Positive Emotional Experiences. Journal of Neuroscience. March 23, 2011. http://www.jneurosci.org/content/31/12/4466Accessed February 14, 2019.
- Lewis K. S, Gordon-Smith K, et al. Sleep loss as a trigger of mood episodes in bipolar disorder: individual differences based on diagnostic subtype and gender. The British journal of psychiatry: the journal of mental science. September 2017. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5579327/ Accessed February 14, 2019.
- Gillin J. C, Buchsbaum M, et al. Sleep deprivation as a model experimental antidepressant treatment: findings from functional brain imaging. Depression and Anxiety. 2001. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11568981 Accessed February 14, 2019.
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