How Do Sleep Disorders Impact the Brain and Mental Health?

Sleep Disorders

Can’t sleep? You’re not alone. A lack of quality sleep is so pervasive in American society the CDC has referred to it as a “public health epidemic.” And that was pre-pandemic. A rising number of Americans are suffering from poor sleep following the pandemic due to increased anxiousness, depression, long COVID, weight gain, and more. It’s taking a heavy toll as sleep disorders have a negative effect on the brain, cognitive performance, and mental health. Here’s a closer look at some of the most common sleeping problems and their impacts on the brain, mind, and mental clarity.


Research shows that a variety of sleeping disorders have a negative impact on the brain, cognitive performance, and mental health. Click To Tweet


As important as food or water, sleep is a fundamental biological need. Quality sleep is vital for your brain health, cognitive function, and mental well-being. While we sleep, our brains perform critical functions. For example, a growing body of research shows that sleep is involved in learning and memory consolidation. A 2019 study shows that during sleep, the brain also washes itself, clearing out toxins and metabolic waste that build up each day. Among the neural “trash” that’s removed are misfolded proteins that are associated with aging and neurodegenerative diseases. For example, the waste removal system eliminates two proteins—beta-amyloid and tau—that clump together to form the plaques and tangles believed to be associated with Alzheimer’s disease.


Adults need 7-9 hours of sleep each night and a lack of adequate sleep results in detrimental impacts on the brain. The brain can’t perform its critical memory, learning, and waste removal functions. A 2018 study found that a single sleepless night leads to a build-up of a beta-amyloid, one of the proteins implicated in Alzheimer’s disease.

One functional brain-imaging study published in the Journal of Neuroscience found that sleep deprivation interferes with connections between the prefrontal cortex (a region involved in executive functions such as planning, judgment, and impulse control) and the brain’s limbic system (emotional centers) and reward network. The researchers concluded that this led to impairments in executive function, increased response to rewarding stimuli, and elevated emotional responses. The end result—is an uptick in irrational behavior and poor judgment.

Lack of sleep also diminishes cognitive function. According to a study in Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment, sleep deprivation impairs working memory and attention, in addition to impacting long-term memory and poor decision-making.


Sleep disorders are strongly associated with mental health issues. People with psychiatric conditions are more likely to experience sleep problems, and individuals who have trouble sleeping are at greater risk for mental health issues. A single night of tossing and turning can increase feelings of anger, irritability, anxiousness, stress, or sadness the next morning. Over time, sleep problems can lead to a higher risk of depression, ADD/ADHD, panic attacks, brain fog, psychosis, memory problems, and dementia. Alarming statistics reported in Scientific American show that teenagers who sleep just an hour less per night on average are 38% more likely to feel sad and hopeless, 42% more likely to consider suicide, 58% more likely to attempt suicide, and 23% more likely to engage in substance abuse. A 2019 study in the American Journal of Public Health points to a 33% increased risk of depression among shift workers compared with the general population.


1. Insomnia

Having trouble falling asleep, difficulty staying asleep, or waking up early are all signs of insomnia. This common sleep disorder affects an estimated 35% of American adults. Insomnia is frequently seen in people with mental health issues. For example, approximately 75% of those struggling with depression and more than 50% of those with anxiety have trouble sleeping. During manic phases in people with bipolar disorder, an estimated 69-99% experience insomnia or a decreased need to sleep.

2. Obstructive Sleep Apnea

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA)—when a person snores loudly, stops breathing multiple times at night, then feels excessively tired during the day—is bad for your brain and mental health. One study in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry found that people with sleep apnea were 5 times more likely to have depression. Other research has found that moderate to severe sleep apnea more than doubles the risk of developing depression. A 2016 review shows that the risk of developing dementia is even higher. On brain SPECT imaging scans, which measure blood flow and activity in the brain, sleep apnea often shows low overall blood flow and looks similar to patterns seen in early Alzheimer’s disease. OSA is associated with shrinkage of the hippocampus, and a 2020 study in Sleep Medicine Clinics showed that more severe cases of sleep apnea were associated with greater atrophy of this brain region.

3. Hypersomnia

Some people sleep too much, feel excessively tired during the day, or need multiple naps. Despite prolonged sleep, these individuals typically don’t feel refreshed or energized after napping, rather they struggle to wake up. Hypersomnia may be caused by sleep apnea or narcolepsy and is associated with anxiety, irritability, slowed thinking, memory problems, and in some cases, hallucinations. Research in Frontiers in Neurology found that narcolepsy is associated with a reduction in orexin neurons, a type of neurons involved in regulating critical bodily functions, including sleep and wakefulness, cognition, and mood.

4. Circadian Rhythm Disorders

Circadian rhythm disorders occur when your inner body clock gets out of whack and disrupts the timing of your sleep. The body’s internal clock tries to cue your sleep-wake cycle based on the environment—making you feel sleepy when it gets dark outside and waking you when the sun comes up. Any disruptions to this daily cycle can interfere with quality sleep. Jet lag, shift work, aging, and other issues can contribute to circadian rhythm disorders, which have been linked to memory problems, poor decision-making, and reduced alertness. Research in Sleep Medicine Clinics suggests that circadian rhythm disorders may be a risk factor for neurodegenerative disorders.


Overcoming sleep disorders is possible, and it can have a powerful effect on brain health and mental well-being. Understanding if it’s your biology or psychology that is disrupting your sleep is an important step in the process.

  • Make sleep a priority: Practice daily sleep hygiene by turning off digital devices at least 1 hour before bedtime, keeping your room cool and dark, eating early to give your body time to digest food before hitting the sack, and limiting or eliminating alcohol as it can disrupt sleep.
  • Meditation or prayer: Spending time in meditation or prayer can induce relaxation.
  • Hypnosis: Engaging in hypnosis or self-hypnosis can promote a sense of calm and help you fall asleep faster and get more restful sleep.
  • Calming supplements: Nutraceuticals such as magnesium, melatonin, GABA, 5-HTP, and l-theanine support healthy sleep.
  • Get tested for and treat obstructive sleep apnea: If you’re diagnosed with OSA, the gold standard for treatment is called a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) mask, which delivers a steady stream of air through your passageways.

Sleep disorders, depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues can’t wait. At Amen Clinics, we’re here for you. We offer in-clinic brain scanning and appointments, as well as mental telehealth, clinical evaluations, and therapy for adults, teens, children, and couples. Find out more by speaking to a specialist today at 888-288-9834 or visit our contact page here.


  1. You didn’t mention taking gummies with CBD & THC
    What effect especially with alcohol would that have on the brain?

    Comment by Echo Lucas — October 31, 2022 @ 5:17 AM

  2. I am so grateful everyday to receive your emails. Many hit home with me. Information I had been looking for for years.
    9 years ago I was diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea. All my life I slept only 4 hours a night but was full of energy and athletic The docs never said anything about sleep. My parents died one after the other and I was working as a high school teacher and went to 0 sleep was white as a sheet. Still I was offered drugs and took for one day and felt awful. The on doc Oz show I heard a sleep specialist and realized I probably had sleep apnea
    Did the test and was diagnosed with severe obstructive sleep apnea I was told I probably had it my whole life and was lucky to be alive. Hence started to be extremely vigilant about my diet etc.
    Thanks I wish I found you guys many many years ago

    Comment by Carol-Ann Stadelman — October 31, 2022 @ 6:58 AM

  3. Does Dr Amen give any classes on improving sleep? Thank you. Joan

    Comment by Joan Bleu — October 31, 2022 @ 8:59 AM

  4. I have had problems sleeping since I was a youngster! My father used to turn my legs back and forth in a rolling position. To this day I still roll in order to sleep but it doesn’t work anymore, I take 40 mg of melatonin to sleep and that doesn’t work very well either. If I take a boatload of sleeping medication ( over the counter) I can finally get to sleep but I worry about taking too much!

    Comment by Terri Hutson — October 31, 2022 @ 9:13 AM

  5. My Son, Joseph Timothy Ince, 44 had a TBI, Left Temporal Skull Fracture that was removed due to being cracked badly. Joseph his a dark car at 9:30 PM with the left back sitting in the street. Joseph wked 80 plus hours & believed he dozed & woke & realized he was going to hit the car tried to correct. Hit the left back of car, went over the handles of his Harley. R leg was caught in the protective bar. The Harley rolled with Joseph causing extensive damage. A block from home, Joseph wore not his helmet. 6/19/22 was the accident & the Tentative Surgery to replace a 3
    dimensional made for skull is 1/11/23. To date the brain Flap has sunk more. He is at Vanderbilt Medical Center, Nash., TN. I read all I can to learn about the brain. This article, lack of Sleep is full of knowledge, not only for Joseph, but myself 72 & Daughter 42 here with My Son.

    Comment by Carole Christine Flynn — October 31, 2022 @ 10:17 AM

  6. I only sleep about 3-4 hours a night

    Comment by Michael Cretaro — October 31, 2022 @ 10:37 AM

  7. This information on sleep was very good. I know that my brain is off-line I listen to Sheri Keffer and I’m in the middle of a divorce but Mike is non-compliant and dragging this on my heart is broken as are my finances I would love anything more you have on sleep disorder I have even with living with him way back went to cognitive sleeping classes. I only get 3 to 5 hours of sleep that has been as such for over five years.

    Comment by Marilyn — October 31, 2022 @ 11:03 AM

  8. What about the parents of toddlers and newborns who have no choice in the matter? I am on 2 straight years without a single night of uninterrupted sleep.

    Comment by Sara — November 1, 2022 @ 11:08 AM

  9. Dear Amen Clinic Staff:
    I have been diagnosed with Bipolar 2 disorder. Could you share any of your knowledge that could assist me with my sleep patterns. Very often it is difficult for me to get steady sleep.

    Thank you Rob

    Comment by Robert Diduck — November 2, 2022 @ 1:21 AM

  10. Hello Robert, thank you for reaching out. For more information about SPECT scans and our services, please contact our Care Coordinators:

    Comment by Amen Clinics — November 2, 2022 @ 11:17 AM

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