There’s some good news for even the most extreme insomniacs: Data published in the journal Sleep in early 2018 revealed that Americans are finally getting more sleep. It may only be an average of 18 minutes more of sleep per weeknight than in 2003, but at least it’s trending upward.
And those 18 minutes do in fact make a difference: In sleep cycles, every little bit counts. “Even losing just 1 or 2 hours of sleep a night will make an impact on your cognitive abilities, your ability to pay attention at work, your immune system, and your general bodily health,” says Dr. Jared Saletin, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at Brown University. His current research focuses on children and how sleep supports their next-day function, including mood and behavior changes, which are somewhat less talked about issues in the scientific sleep conversation. New research is increasingly proving that lack of sleep changes your mood and affects your emotional reactions, sometimes with major consequences to your personal life.
The side effects of little sleep — like short-temperedness and impulsivity, for example — are signs that your brain is actually not functioning as it should. In a sleep-deprived brain, the prefrontal cortex can’t communicate with the amygdala, which is the brain’s fear center, in order to temper its reactions. In a well-rested brain, the connection between those two parts of the brain is stronger and therefore more able to accurately respond to perceived threats. “REM sleep may actually help restore those connections,” explains Selatin.
So, are we finally ready to commit to getting our REM sleep? Well, we’re getting there. “I always think of sleep advocacy roughly where eating well was 15 years ago. Everybody knew it was important but we didn’t have it in the zeitgeist the way we do today,” says Selatin. “We’re still at the point where if you’re really tuned in, you know there’s all sorts of ways we can think about improving our sleep. But people still stay up late, they still wake up early, they still sleep in their bed with their phone, they still do all those things. We’re not changing behavior quite yet.” After learning more about the impact sleep has on your social life, you might be ready to put in some serious quality time with your mattress.