Some of you might remember the public service announcement from the late 1980s “This is Your Brain on Drugs“. It was an anti-drug campaign launched in 1987 by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America and its impact was huge. It showed a man holding an egg and saying “this is your brain”. He then motions to a hot frying pan saying “this is drugs”. He then cracks open the egg on the pan and says “This is your brain on drugs”. He then looks up and asks “Any questions”? The implication was powerful and needed no explanation.

By using that same approach to describe sleep deprivation, minus the egg of course, you’d see a brain and body that was quite literally, falling apart. As a psychotherapist and performance coach, I pay close attention to the sleep habits of my patients. You see, if there’s a lack of sleep, your brain and body will pretty much be like that egg in the hot frying pan: incapacitated–and no one wants that to happen.

Here’s what sleep deprivation will do to you:

1. You’ll feel depressed and anxious.

Overwhelmingly insomnia is one of the most common symptoms I see in my depressed and anxious patients and is one of the most closely linked sleep disorders to mood issues. It’s a bit of a double edged sword because poor sleep will make someone more prone to depression and depression/worry will interfere with one’s ability to sleep. The good news is that by treating depression, peoples’ sleep will improve and by treating insomnia peoples’ depression will get better.

2. You’ll gain weight.

The hormone ghrelin is related to sleep and weight. It tells your brain when you need to eat, when it should stop burning calories and when it should store energy as fat. When you sleep you require less energy than when you’re awake, so your levels of ghrelin decrease. People who don’t sleep enough end up with too much ghrelin so the body thinks it’s hungry and it needs more calories, and it stops burning those calories because it thinks there’s a shortage. This leads to packing on pounds.

3. You’ll develop wrinkles.

Chronic sleep deprivation not only will lead to puffy eyes, but also fine lines and dark circles. Here’s why: when you don’t get enough sleep, your body releases more of the stress hormone cortisol. In excess amounts, it breaks down the protein in the skin known as collagen. This protein is what’s responsible for maintaining skin’s smoothness and elasticity.

4. You’ll be forgetful.

During sleep it is believed that information that is learned during the day is processed and transferred in the brain from the hippocampus to the neocortex. Without adequate sleep this process doesn’t occur and information is not stored.

5. You’ll become wimpy.

When you don’t get enough sleep your body doesn’t release enough human growth hormone (HGH). For a young person this hormone promotes growth and as we age it helps to strengthen bones, increase muscle mass, and thicken skin. So sleep will literally make you thin-skinned and wimpy.

Here’s how to get better sleep:

1. Go to sleep when you’re tired.

Have you ever been lounging on the couch at night, watching TV, and struggling to keep your eyes open to finish the show?  Well, this is a sign that you should actually stop watching that TV and get into bed. Your brain is telling you that you need sleep. There’s no clearer sign than this. If you don’t get to sleep, then you’ll get overtired and it will be hard to fall sleep later. Rather than fighting it, pay attention to it and get yourself to bed.

2. Don’t go to sleep if you’re not tired.

A big mistake people so often make is that they go to sleep before they are ready, which leads to a cycle of not sleeping and worry about being up. Even though you may think you’re doing a good thing by getting into bed by a certain hour, you may actually be causing problems. You see, if you get into bed when you’re not tired, you may end up tossing and turning and worrying about not falling asleep. So only get into bed when tired and don’t miss your window of opportunity to get to sleep.

3. Get pumping.

Whether it is challenging your body during the day by pumping iron and aerobic exercise, or stimulating your mind, being active helps to reduce stress and leads to overall wellness. Both will increase your drive for sleep. Pumping through sexual activity also helps with sleep. After an orgasm the hormones prolactin and oxytocin are released. Both promote feelings of relaxation and calm.

4. Do a digital detox.

If you rely on your smartphone as an alarm clock, be aware that lights including those generated by devices, are incompatible with sleep and might trick the brain into staying awake when you should be sleeping. Electronic gadgets such as phones and tablets stimulate the brain, which is counter to what you’re trying to achieve as you wind down for the night. So make your bedroom a device-free zone close to bedtime and by all means, do not sleep with your cell phone by your head. Unconsciously your brain may not allow itself to get into too deep of a sleep knowing a call/text might come through just inches away.

5. Use your bed for sleep and sex only.

Don’t eat, work, or watch TV in your bed. Maintain a separation between bed activities and wake activities. Remember, only sex and sleep in the bed! When it’s time to start getting ready for bed, shut off electronic equipment an hour before bedtime, including computers, phones, and tablets. Dim the lights, shut the blinds, and create a relaxing environment. The fewer lights that are on the less likely your mind is to think it needs to be awake and alert. Do activities that are relaxing such as reading a book or watching a TV show (but not one that is too stimulating).

By focusing on the things that you have control over, you’ll ensure a better night’s sleep. If you’re anxious about being a poor sleeper, then try to change the way you think about it. In most cases it’s a fixable issue related to lifestyle. Perhaps it is about physical discomfort or stress. Whatever the case, make it a priority to assess your sleep and remember, #YourDayBeginsWithSleep .


  • Jonathan Alpert

    Psychotherapist, executive performance coach, and author of Be Fearless: Change Your Life in 28 Days. Twitter: @JonathanAlpert

    Jonathan Alpert is a psychotherapist, columnist, performance coach and author in Manhattan. As a psychotherapist, he has helped countless couples and individuals overcome a wide range of challenges and go on to achieve success. He discussed his results-oriented approach in his 2012 New York Times Opinion piece, “In Therapy Forever? Enough Already”, which continues to be debated and garner international attention. Alpert is frequently interviewed by major TV, print and digital media outlets and has appeared on the Today Show, CNN, FOX, and Good Morning America discussing current events, mental health, hard news stories, celebrities/politicians, as well as lifestyle and hot-button issues. He appears in the 2010 Oscar-winning documentary, Inside Job commenting on the financial crisis. With his unique insight into how people think and their motivations, Alpert helps clients develop and strengthen their brands. He has been a spokesperson for NutriBullet, Liberty Mutual insurance, and Enterprise Rent-A-Car. Jonathan’s 2012 book BE FEARLESS: Change Your Life in 28 Days has been translated into six languages worldwide. Alpert continues to provide advice to the masses through his, Huffington Post, and Thrive columns. @JonathanAlpert