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How Does Sleep Deprivation Affect My Willpower?
Saving for a down payment on an apartment or house? Trying to stick to your workout routine? You know what you want to accomplish, and you know why you want to accomplish it. So why does it seem impossible at times to keep your resolve? No matter what your goal, you need willpower to achieve it.
And when you’re tired, your willpower wanes.
So… If I can’t drag my butt to the gym at the end the day, I’m not a bad person?
“Willpower is not a constant feature of our character, as was once thought,” explained Roy Baumeister, PhD, a Florida State University professor of psychology and co-author of Willpower. “It’s a level of energy that fluctuates over the day as it is used and replenished.”
Kelly McGonigal, PhD and author of The Willpower Instinct, agrees: “Contrary to popular belief, willpower is not an innate character trait. Rather it’s a complex mind-body response that can be compromised” by poor nutrition, too much stress, and of course too little sleep.
The part of the brain that regulates self control is the same part you rely on for concentration, decision-making and long-term planning. And they all draw from the same energy pool. Taming your nerves for a big presentation? Draining. Deciding which way to swipe on Tinder? Tiring. Choosing which pet to adopt from the shelter? Ditto. All deplete the mental resources needed to resist whatever leads you into temptation.
The good news is, research has taught us a lot about the physiology of self-control, and although it can be exhausted with use, like a muscle, it can also be strengthened. Exercise and meditation have been shown to build neural pathways that bolster self-control.
But the building blocks of willpower start with the golden rules of good health: Eat smart, manage stress, sleep well.
To have the mental wherewithal to resist impulses, regulate your actions and calibrate your emotions, takes energy. Foods that are low on the glycemic index — most vegetables, complex carbohydrates, protein, some fats — will nourish you by providing the slow burn needed to keep your energy stores up and your blood sugar in check throughout the day.
Being well-rested helps refill the tank.
Sleep deprivation is a kind of chronic stress that affects how the body and brain use energy. In fact, without sleep the neurons may become so depleted of energy that they begin to malfunction.
If you’re like many people who aren’t getting enough rest (experts recommend between seven and nine hours a night), it’s game over for willpower. Feeling stressed on a day when you’re running on fumes, and it’s hello instant gratification.
You know the stress evolutionary back story, the fight-or-flight response developed in our hunter-gatherer days? Our modern-day stress response still has the same physiological effect: Glucose is diverted from the frontal cortex (command central for willpower) to your muscles and heart. Which makes sense if you’re battling a bear or outrunning a tiger. It’s not so good if you’re trying to pass up a second bowl of Ben & Jerry’s.
If you’re sleep-deprived, willpower loses its home-game advantage. Being tired impairs how the body processes glucose (per above evolutionary back story). That’s strike one. It interferes with the hormones that regulate appetite, so you crave sugary foods (strike two). And it impairs your cognitive functioning, so you neither have the attention nor the judgment to stick to your goals (strike three).
To your brain, being sleep deprived is a lot like being drunk. And you know how well you resist temptation after a few glasses of wine. The good news is that, as well as eating healthy and figuring out how to manage stress, better quality rest can be a real boost to self-control. A good night’s sleep can help you accomplish what you really want, or need, to do.