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Can't sleep? One night of tossing and turning can make you crabby and less willing to help your neighbor

Do you get a little bit cranky after a sleepless night? In this "Health Fusion" column, Viv Williams explores how sleep deprivation can do a lot more damage than just messing with your mornings. It may also make people less willing to help each other.

Woman in bed reaching out to turn off alarm
Some people set an alarm clock even though they're sleep deprived.
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ROCHESTER — How much sleep did you get last night? I had one of those sleepless, tossing and turning nights during which I kept peeking at the clock even though I know that doing so only makes the situation worse. Usually, I'm a good sleeper, but every once in a while, I'm not.

The morning after a sleepless night is always interesting. If I jump right into the day and avoid thinking about it, I can feel pretty normal. But if I obsess over my sleep deprivation, I start to get a little disoriented, I worry about not being able to accomplish tasks and I feel as if I'm wearing an invisible headband that gets tighter and tighter as the day marches on.

Plus, I get crabby. At everything. I try to keep it masked, but I get annoyed with my family, our pets, the dishes in the sink, the dust bunnies in the corner and the fact that the ink in my pen isn't quite the shade of blue that I want it to be. But mostly I get mad at myself.

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Sound familiar? It likely does, because plenty of peer-reviewed, research-based scholarly studies support the idea that sleep deprivation affects mood. Just about everyone can vouch for that from personal experience. But as I was looking through papers about this topic, I came across a recent article from the University of California, Berkeley, that surprised me. I read it and learned that not only does skimping on sleep make you crabby and at increased risk of certain diseases, but also it makes people less generous. It makes us less willing to help others, which, the researchers say, has global consequences.

“Over the past 20 years, we have discovered a very intimate link between our sleep health and our mental health," says Dr. Matthew Walker, a University of California, Berkeley, professor of psychology. "But this new work demonstrates that a lack of sleep not only damages the health of an individual, but degrades social interactions between individuals and, furthermore, degrades the very fabric of human society itself. How we operate as a social species — and we are a social species — seems profoundly dependent on how much sleep we are getting.”


And with all of the noise, media clutter and endless to-do lists in our lives, many people are not getting enough.

For the study, the scientists ran three tests. One involved looking at MRI scans to see what sleep deprivation does to brain images. Results showed that the area of the brain associated with feelings of empathy was less active in those who pulled an all-nighter than in those who got a full eight hours of sleep.

For the second test, the researchers tracked the sleep quality of study participants for a few days. They found that a decrease in sleep quality meant a decrease in the desire to help others.

The third test involved mining data about charitable giving after daylight saving time. The researchers found that during the week after daylight saving time, when most people turn their clocks ahead and lose one hour of sleep, charitable giving decreases by 10%.

"Just the loss of one single hour of sleep opportunity linked to daylight saving time — has a very measurable and very real impact on people’s generosity, and, therefore, how we function as a connected society,” says Walker. “When people lose one hour of sleep, there's a clear hit on our innate human kindness and our motivation to help other people in need."

So it seems that not only will getting adequate sleep help boost our own health, but also it may help improve the health of our communities. And as we all deal with the political, racial and other divisions happening in our nation and world today, perhaps getting some good shut eye is a way to start creating a kinder world.

The study is published in the journal Plos Biology.


Follow the  Health Fusion podcast on  Apple,   Spotify and  Google podcasts. For comments or other podcast episode ideas, email Viv Williams at  vwilliams@newsmd.com. Or on Twitter/Instagram/FB @vivwilliamstv.


When temps drop and days shorten in the fall, are you temped to hibernate and stay in bed a little longer? In this episode of NewsMD's "Health Fusion," Viv Williams shares what experts now know about a possible connection between how early you wake up and your risk of depression.

Opinion by Viv Williams
Viv Williams hosts the NewsMD podcast and column, "Health Fusion." She is an Emmy (and other) award-winning health and medical reporter whose stories have run on TV, digital and newspaper outlets nationwide. Viv is passionate about boosting people's health and happiness by helping them access credible, reliable and research-based health information from top experts. She regularly interviews experts and patients from leading medical institutions, such as Mayo Clinic.
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