How does insomnia affect executive functions? In today’s society, sleep problems are much more common than in previous decades. This is due, among other factors, to the sensory overstimulation which we are subjected to on a daily basis and to the stress of our accelerated pace of life. Difficulty falling asleep, insomnia and sleepwalking, among other sleep disorders, affect many more people than previously thought, and the repercussions to our cognitive functions are still being researched.
Between 20% and 48% of the adult population suffers from difficulty initiating or maintaining sleep. On this blog post, we will examine how insomnia affects our executive functions, especially attention, working memory, and decision making.
What is insomnia?
Insomnia is the most common sleep disorder among the Spanish population; insomnia is defined as the difficulty or inability to fall asleep or stay asleep for the period that a person needs to wake up feeling rested.
Our body, to perform properly, needs about 8 hours of restorative sleep per day, although there are people who need less hours (about 6) and others who may need a little longer (about 10 hours).
Normalcy would fall within these parameters. Problems arise when a person sleeps less than those 6 hours, within a reasonable period of time, or does not sleep without interruptions.
What are executive functions?
Executive functions are the skills and abilities that enable us to adapt effectively to the environment and survive. These include planning, working memory, reasoning, inhibition, cognitive flexibility, and decision making.
We can understand executive functions as a constellation of abilities that help us achieve our goals and objectives.
If you would like to learn more about executive functions, do not miss this post:
Executive functions: Can they be improved?
How does insomnia affect executive functions?
How does insomnia affect executive functions? Sleep deprivation and insomnia have significant negative effects on executive functions.
Lack of sleep interferes with neural connections, causing them to slow down or not function properly, thereby directly affecting cognitive functioning and executive functions, and leading to functional deficits.
This can be observed at the time of carrying out complex tasks or tasks that require sustained attention, such as driving.
According to Wei-Shin Lai, a physician who specializes in sleep disorders, “not sleeping for 24 hours is equivalent to feeling legally drunk”.
Insomnia and attention
Research studies on insomnia and attention have shown that while there are no significant differences in processing speed between non-insomniacs and insomniacs during simple task execution, the latter seem to suffer from processing speed deficits when performing complex tasks.
Difficulty shifting focus has also been observed, especially in people who sleep less than 6 hours per day.
Insomnia and working memory
Working memory is one of the executive functions most affected by sleep deprivation. Working memory is located in the prefrontal cortex of the brain, whose region at the front appears to be the most vulnerable to sleep deprivation.
Functional magnetic resonance imaging has shown that insomniacs need to make more use oftheir cognitive abilities to retain the same information as non-insomniacs.
The ability to retain new information can drop by up to 40% in people with insomnia.
In short, even though much research remains to be done in order to obtain conclusive data, most recent studies have highlighted the importance of sleep and sleep quality for executive performance.
These data suggest decreased cognitive resources, problems with maintaining and shifting focus, and working memory deficits.Altogether, they suggest prefrontal dysfunction.
How to improve sleep quality?
The above leads to the conclusion that paying attention to sleep quality and duration is essential. These little tricks, if you follow them regularly, will help improve your sleep quality.
- Establish a bedtime routine
- Avoid caffeine and alcohol
- Exercise at least 30 minutes daily
- Keep your bedroom tidy, clean, and well ventilated
- Practice breathing exercises 10 minutes before bedtime
- Avoid the overstimulation caused by mobile phones or tablets, at least 30 minutes before going to bed.
- Taking a hot bath or drinking herbal tea are good options for those nights when you are wide awake.
How to improve executive functioning?
If you are a psychologist or occupational therapist and want to train your patients’ executive functions, you can too. With NeuronUP, you can choose which function you would like to train with each of your patients. If you are interested in activities for improving executive function skills, do not miss this post: Executive functions in children and adolescents