Sleepless nights may mean more anxious days, according to the findings of a study published in the June 10, 2012 issue of Psychology & Psychiatry.

The research, which involved functional MRI scans (fMRI) showed that a lack of sleep led to an exacerbation of existing emotional states, and raised anticipation of impending emotional events – particularly among highly anxious people.

Researchers from the Sleep and Neuroimaging Laboratory at the University of California at Berkeley examined 18 healthy adults in two separate sessions, using brain scanning – one  after a normal night’s sleep and the second after a night of sleep deprivation.

Both times, participants were exposed to an emotional task involving a period of anticipation of a potentially negative experience (an unpleasant visual image) or a potentially benign experience (a neutral visual image).

The findings of the study raised for the first time the possibility that the two most common symptoms in anxiety disorders — loss of sleep and heightened emotional response — may in fact be interconnected, rather than independent of each other.

The fMRI scan showed that sleep deprivation significantly amplified the buildup of anticipatory activity in deep emotional brain centers – particularly in the amygdala, which is associated with response to negative and unpleasant experiences.

Researchers also found that the strength of the sleep deprivation effect was linked to the level of natural anxiety the participants already had. The higher the level of natural anxiety, the greater the vulnerability to the negative effects of the sleep deprivation.

The findings suggest that anxiety may elevate emotional dysfunction and risk associated with in
sufficient sleep, the researchers said.

“Our results suggest that just one night of sleep loss significantly alters the optimal functioning of this essential brain process, especially among anxious individuals,” noted Andrea Goldstein, lead author of the study. “This is perhaps never more relevant considering the continued eriosion of sleep time that continues to occur across society.”

Lack of sleep has long been known to disrupt physical health – including hormone regulation, glucose metabolism, insulin resistance, inflammation processes, pain perception and immune fuction.

In a study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), nearly 50 million adults reported difficulty concentrating as a result of sleep problems.

Researchers found in 2005 that study participants who lacked enough sleep were less optimistic and less social – even if they did not feel tired.

A meta-analysis published in the Monitor on Psychology found there are far-reaching consequences to allowing one’s body to function on too little sleep.

For instance, a 1999 research study showed that cutting one’s sleep by only an hour a night led to a 19 percent drop in the level of leptin, the hormone that regulates hunger and appetite. This study prompted further research confirming the connection between partial sleep loss, hormone regulation and the role of sleep in obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

In 2012, principal investigator Kristen Knutson, PhD found that children and adolescents are particularly vulnerable to health risks due to loss of sleep. Knutson discovered a link between obesity and higher BMI (body mass index) and partial sleep loss (sleeping less than six hours per night).

Another study found that fat cells in the bodies of people who don’t get enough sleep are 30 percent less able to respond to insulin – meaning they are more likely to retain the fat, and possibly become Type II diabetics later in life.

The bottom line? Get enough sleep. Your life may depend on it. For ADHD people, your ability to focus, stay on task and concentrate certainly does!