Insomnia Impacts These 11 Cognitive and Mental Health Issues



Are you feeling slow and sluggish? Are you down in the dumps? Are you having trouble remembering what you’ve studied or learned? Do you feel fatigued most of the time? Are you more anxious, or ruminating at bedtime? It could be related to how you’re sleeping, or more likely, not sleeping. If you fail to get more than 6 hours of sleep a night, you might be struggling with insomnia, sometimes referred to as excessive wakefulness.


Insomnia affects attention, reaction times, and impairs abilities in a variety of cognitive psychomotor tests – surprisingly similar to the effects of being drunk, and sometimes worse! Click To Tweet

Many people are surprised to discover that a lack of restorative sleep can adversely affect your brain function and mental health. In fact, medical researchers report that insomnia is one of the most common but overlooked conditions with serious impacts on health.

Vital processes happen in the brain when we get adequate sleep (7-9 hours). Brain cells repair themselves, toxins that build up during daytime activity are flushed away, and neuronal connections are activated protecting against deterioration related to inactivity. These activities keep your brain function working optimally and help to promote emotional regulation. That’s why insomnia can be so destructive. It deprives your brain of these needed processes.


It’s estimated that up to 70 million adults struggle with sleeping and the problem is progressively worsening with the proliferation of digital devices and bad habits.

Insomnia is defined as difficulty either falling or staying asleep despite adequate opportunity for sleep, and it is accompanied by daytime impairments related to those sleep troubles, according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine clinical guidelines. Typical daytime symptoms may include fatigue, attention/memory problems, problems at school/work, irritability, behavioral problems, increased accidents/mistakes, and more.

There are two types of insomnia: chronic and short-term.

  • Chronic insomnia is when a person has trouble sleeping more than 6 hours a night and experiences related daytime fatigue and attention issues at least 3 days per week for more than 3 months or repeatedly over years. According to the Sleep Foundation, roughly 10% of people have chronic insomnia disorder.
  • Short-term insomnia occurs when a person experiences the same issues as chronic insomnia disorder but for less than 3 months, and it may not be 3 nights a week. It’s often triggered by temporary stressors such as the death of a loved one, divorce, or perhaps an illness. It’s believed that 15% and 20% of adults experience short-term insomnia in any given year, according to the Sleep Foundation. However, one study sample estimated that figure to be roughly 30%.

Insomnia can be caused by stress, poor sleep hygiene, irregular sleep schedules (night shift work, travel, etc.), mental health disorders, illness, physical discomfort, medications, environmental factors (temp, light, noise, etc.), neurological issues, and more. Being female or elderly puts you at a higher risk of insomnia.


Researchers believe that various stages of sleep play a vital role in brain health, allowing activity in different parts of the brain to power up or down and facilitating better thinking, learning, and memory. However, when we have extended periods of wakefulness, these processes get interrupted, compromised, or don’t happen at all and brain function suffers.

Further, research in Scientific Reports has shown that sleep deprivation is associated with a decrease in blood flow to the brain, which also compromises brain function. Below are a few of the major brain functions that are negatively impacted by insomnia.

1. Memory and Learning

A 2019 study from a team of Japanese and U.S. researchers indicates that sleep is a time of memory consolidation, where your brain selects key memories and discards non-essential information so that important information can be recalled later. This happens during periods of deep sleep (REM and NREM sleep), which often does not occur with disrupted or shortened sleep.

Some evidence from the Journal of Sleep Research even suggests that sleep deprivation may put you at risk for incorporating false or misleading information into your memories. Sleeplessness hinders working memory, one of the brain’s executive functions. It allows us to work with information without losing track of what we’re doing. Poor sleep can also diminish placekeeping as well, according to a 2020 study. That means it compromises your ability to carry out instructions.

2. Attention and Reaction Times

An oft-cited study in the journal Nature shows insomnia affects attention, reaction times, and impairs abilities in a variety of cognitive psychomotor tests—surprisingly similar to the effects of being drunk, and sometimes worse! The greater the sleep debt, the slower reaction times, according to one study involving college athletes.

3. Judgment

Insomnia can affect our decision making and lead to more risky choices by focusing on potential benefits rather than carefully weighing drawbacks, according to research in the Journal of Neuroscience. Basically, lack of sleep limits our ability to learn from poor decisions and their consequences.

4. Cognition

Chronic sleep deprivation has been linked to longer-term cognitive decline, including the development of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, according to a meta-analysis of studies. The review estimated that roughly 15% of Alzheimer’s diagnoses in the population are attributable to sleep problems. Researchers believe that sleep helps the brain to clear out potentially damaging substances like beta amyloid proteins. Beta amyloid forms in clusters, called plaques, that are believed to worsen cognitive function and contribute to Alzheimer’s over time. Even one night of sleep deprivation can increase the amount of beta amyloid in the brain, according to a 2018 study in PNAS. For those diagnosed with dementia, insomnia can make it worse.


Restorative sleep plays a foundation role in mental and emotional health, too. It facilitates the brain’s processing of emotional information. When we fail to get enough sleep, the consolidation of positive emotional input is compromised. Insomnia increases your risk of developing mental health disorders by 40%! What’s more, there appears to be a bidirectional relationship between insomnia and mental health issues. Mental health disorders can cause sleep issues, and poor sleep, including insomnia, can contribute to the onset or worsening of mental health disorders, including the following.

1. Depression

Insomnia is most commonly linked to depression. It is believed that insomnia and depression share common pathological processes that make individuals vulnerable to both conditions. Rumination (replaying the same thoughts over and over in your head) often leads to delayed sleep patterns and depression. Roughly 75% of depressed people also experience insomnia, according to scientific findings. Depressed people with disturbed sleep are also at increased risk for suicide and are more vulnerable to a recurrence of depression. On a more hopeful note, some research indicates that when insomnia is treated, depression also improves. The best outcome occurs though when both conditions are treated.

2. Anxiety

Anxious people know all too well that anxiety and insomnia go together. That’s because worrisome and fearful thoughts (rumination) lead to a state of hyperarousal or a racing mind, which, in turn, contributes to insomnia. Anxious people then worry about their sleep problems making it difficult to fall asleep. But it’s a two-way street. Research in the journal Sleep shows that chronic insomnia can predispose people to anxiety or activate it in people who are at high risk for it.

3. Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Not surprisingly, there’s a strong correlation between insomnia and PTSD. Similar to cases of anxiety, those who have experienced trauma may replay negative events in their mind or suffer from nightmares. This can engage the stress response and the sympathetic nervous system making sleep difficult. Indeed, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs reports that at least 90% of U.S. veterans with combat-related PTSD (from more recent wars) suffer from insomnia.


Sleeping problems are common in those with ADD/ADHD, yet insomnia can exacerbate typical symptoms of this condition such as reduced attention span and behavioral problems.

5. Other Mental Health Conditions

Insomnia may also play a bidirectional role in bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, autism spectrum disorders (ASD), and more. In nearly every case, regulating sleep helps improve the mental health disorder and treating the mental health disorder helps to regulate sleep (with medications possibly being the exception if they affect sleep).


The great news is, sleep disorders are treatable. Addressing any underlying mental health conditions is a key factor in improving sleep. In addition, seeing an integrative medicine physician or a psychiatrist who specializes in sleep can help.

Insomnia, mental health disorders, and cognitive 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.

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