How Sleep Deprivation Affects the Somatosensory Cortex

African American man with book sleeping in library

Sleep is one of the most important things we can do for our bodies and mental health. However, it can also be one of the most destructive things if we don’t get enough sleep. As people grow from teenagers into adulthood and as life gets busier and busier, it can be difficult to create a proper sleep schedule that allows you to get the amount of sleep your body needs to thrive. This is especially the case if you work long hours and just want to relax when you get home. We’ve all been there — a classic 9-5 can be turned into a 9-10 with all of the responsibilities of adulthood being taken care of at the end of the day.

You may even be thinking to yourself, “Well I eat healthily and get plenty of exercise, so I’m doing pretty good, right?” You can be doing well, but if you don’t get enough sleep every night, your efforts might as well be thrown by the wayside. This article will give you an idea of the dangers of sleep deprivation. Specifically, we’ll discuss how sleep deprivation affects our somatosensory cortex by diving into the different types of sleep deprivation, what the somatosensory cortex is, how our somatosensory cortex can be affected, how the rest of our body can be affected, and some best practices to follow at night to ensure you get the daily recommended amount of sleep.

Types of Sleep Deprivation

Did you know that there are different types of sleep deprivation? It may be hard to understand, but the term sleep deprivation covers a wide variety of what we as humans can experience if we don’t get enough sleep. Let’s take a look at the main types of sleep deprivation and what each means.

Acute Sleep Deprivation

Acute sleep deprivation is the first type of sleep deprivation. It refers to a shorter period of time when people don’t meet their daily sleep needs. It can be anywhere from a few days or up to a few weeks. Acute sleep deprivation may appear differently and manifest in people in different ways too. One person might just be staying up at night a few hours to play their favorite video game and miss sleep that way, while another may miss a whole night of sleep trying to study for an important exam.

Chronic Sleep Deprivation

Chronic sleep deprivation is the worst of the two types of sleep deprivation. According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, chronic sleep deprivation (also known as insufficient sleep syndrome) happens when people don’t get their daily recommended amount of sleep for three months or more. Usually, individuals who experience chronic sleep deprivation have already adapted to getting less sleep per night, or they are individuals who may have sleeping disorders that prevent them from getting a full night’s rest. (Welcome to parenthood! We’re kidding, but not really.)

Woman with insomnia lying awake in bed, looking concerned

What Is the Somatosensory Cortex?

As you may know, it’s incredibly important that humans get the recommended amount of sleep. According to the National Sleep Foundation, healthy adults need anywhere from seven hours to nine hours of sleep a night on average to maintain their health and maintain an optimal sleep duration. Children, teenagers, and young adults need even more to accommodate for all the development taking place in their bodies. What happens when we don’t get that sleep for a few nights? Even more so, what happens when we don’t get enough sleep for a prolonged period of time? The answer to that all lies in a part of our brain called the somatosensory cortex.

The somatosensory cortex is responsible for the receiving and processing of sensory information from all over the body. It is part of the parietal lobe in our prefrontal cortex. This includes our five senses of taste, touch, hearing, seeing, and smell. Once the somatosensory cortex receives the presence of stimuli from the brain’s neural pathways, it processes the information which then determines how humans react to the stimuli. This is accomplished using three different somatosensory pathways: primary, secondary, and tertiary pathways (also known as neurons).

Primary neurons are what do the detection of the stimuli. Secondary neurons lay within our spinal cord and are meant to act as a relay station for the stimuli’s “message” (or the sense that we experience, such as hearing a certain sound). The tertiary neurons project this message to the somatosensory cortex, which ultimately creates a “map” of our bodies to be able to tell where the stimuli were received.

How Sleep Deprivation Negatively Impacts Our Somatosensory Cortex Functioning

Now that you understand a little more about what the somatosensory cortex is and what it does, we’ll take a look at how our mind and body (more specifically our somatosensory cortex) can be plagued by sleep deprivation effects.

Your Concentration and Judgment Becomes Impaired

One of the biggest side effects of sleep deprivation is experiencing decreased concentration and impaired judgment. The reason sleep is so important is because it helps us form and maintain our neural pathways — and if we get disrupted sleep or don’t sleep a lot at all, our brains won’t be able to physically function how we’re used to functioning. Even if you experience a few hours of sleep deprivation over a few nights, you may notice your ability to concentrate on many tasks is lower than usual. This is because the parts of your brain that enable you to focus on specific tasks aren’t repaired and don’t work correctly. You may not be able to make decisions as quickly or sound as you normally would either, as it may be difficult for your brain to process the situation and the stimuli in it. As you can see, these problems with concentration and judgment from sleep deprivation could be catastrophic for our mental health.

woman working at desk, pinching nose as if having trouble concentrating

Your Reaction Time Slows Down

Another way sleep deprivation affects our somatosensory cortex is that our reaction time slows down significantly, which could pose many more problems for us than we think. When people drive while they’re sleep deprived, they have a greater likelihood to get into a car accident because they’re too drowsy and can’t react to what’s going on around them properly. Slower reaction times resulting from sleep deprivation may also affect our pain sensitivity, because some people may experience pain at a higher rate than they normally would. One study published in the United Kingdom indicated that not only was reaction time slowed down in sleep-deprived individuals, but their pain threshold was lowered by up to 15%.

You’ll Be Less Coordinated

When people don’t get enough sleep or don’t have a high enough sleep quality each night, the brain works overtime to try and accommodate for the lack of energy. Because of that, the somatosensory cortex overworks itself. One of the many side effects of this lack of sleep quality is impaired coordination. The brain starts to work so hard that our bodies can’t keep up with itself, resulting in lowered coordination. Maybe you’ve experienced this to some extent. Say you have a night where you stay up just three extra hours in order to finish some important work. You wake at your normal time the next morning, get up, and practically stumble to the bathroom to get ready. You don’t normally fall in your own footsteps, but because you’re tired and lack your normal awareness, your coordination is worse than usual.

Your Memory Becomes Impaired

Short-term memory loss becoming impaired is a side effect of acute sleep deprivation, but it can become much more serious with chronic sleep deprivation. As scientists have discovered, both acquiring new memories and recalling those facts happen when we’re awake and are solidified when we’re asleep. Without a high sleep quality, especially after a prolonged period of time, it becomes harder for our brains to recall information and make new memories because we physically can’t absorb the information properly. This could affect multiple areas of your life, personal and professional.

You May Experience Anxiety

Although this happens more so with chronic sleep deprivation, increased anxiety levels and even chronic pain can start to occur with acute sleep deprivation. People who suffer from anxiety usually feel nervous and on edge, at a higher rate than people without anxiety. Pair this with chronic sleep deprivation and anxiety/chronic pain can be even worse. This is all because our cognitive functioning doesn’t allow us to normally make sense of situations, make decisions properly, or even understand the stimuli that are presented to us.

Female suffering from uncontrollable thoughts, overwhelmed with inner conflict stress

You May Experience Hallucinations

Experiencing hallucinations is normally only a side effect of extreme sleep deprivation and the most serious chronic sleep deprivation cases. When someone’s brain is sleep deprived to an extreme extent, their brain’s normal functioning is thrown out the window completely. So much so that people may experience something that is not really there, like with an auditory or visual hallucination, for example. The toll this could take on one’s mental health is pretty clear.

How Sleep Deprivation Negatively Affects Other Parts of Our Bodies

There are many ways in which a lack of sleep impacts our somatosensory cortex alone. However, there are also many other ways that sleep negatively impacts our bodies outside of our brains. Let’s take a look at a list of other health conditions that could occur if someone experiences sleep deprivation.

Weakened Immune System

People may experience a weakened immune system. Our bodies need sleep in order to repair themselves, especially when we get a cold or the flu. Sleep acts as a repairing agent, allowing our bodies to mend themselves overnight while we sleep. Without the sleep we need, our body starts to become weaker over time and people may experience a higher risk of becoming sick or remaining sicker for longer than usual.

Weight Gain

People may experience weight gain. Although this is slightly related in part to our brain’s processing, it affects our weight too. The hormones that signal we’re hungry become all out of whack when people experience sleep deprivation. These hormones may appear to rise, which is our brain telling us we’re hungry, even if our body knows we’re full. Therefore, a person who experiences sleep deprivation is more likely to overindulge in food and gain weight.

closeup of a man with a beer belly

Heart Problems

People may experience heart problems. When one becomes deprived of sleep, the body has to work overtime in order to keep up with daily processes that allow us to be conscious and healthy. One of the processes that may be affected by sleep deprivation is blood pressure. Specifically, the body will work extra hard to maintain the portions of itself that need a consistent flow of blood, ultimately leading to a rise in blood pressure.

Lower Libido

People may experience a lower sex drive. If one becomes overtired and doesn’t get enough sleep, that individual may experience a drop in sex drive. This is due to multiple things, including a lowering in the hormones and pleasure chemicals that are naturally produced in our bodies. With a lack of sleep naturally comes a lack of energy, which may correlate to a lower sex drive. Not to mention the potential weight gain affecting self-esteem, a lowered libido could easily follow.

Top Practices To Ensure a Good Night’s Sleep

Now that you know a little more about how our somatosensory cortex can experience cognitive decline as a result of sleep deprivation, here are some of our top tips on how to ensure you get a full night’s rest.

1. Develop a Bedtime Routine

Developing a routine before you go to bed can help your body get used to performing certain tasks and getting tired at a certain time. Like with an infant, the process allows the brain to recognize, “Hey, it’s time for bed!” If you do your best to be laying down in bed by a certain time, your body and brain will recognize that, and will automatically start to get tired after a certain time. After a while, it will become a habit for you to be in bed by a certain time, and your body will greatly appreciate it.

2. Stop Using Electronics

Put away electronics at least 30 minutes before you go to sleep. As much as you may love to watch TV, or use your phone and tablet, electronics are stimulating. They are designed to engage your brain more which makes it more difficult to fall asleep. By putting your electronics away for the night 30 minutes before you go to bed, your brain and body can properly get tired and shut down for the day. (Plus, we all could benefit from less screen time.)

Asian woman reading in bed

3. Wind Down and Relax

Read a book or engage in other relaxing activities before you lay down. By engaging in activities that help you relax and “chill out”, especially near bedtime, your brain will start to relax too, and you’ll be able to fall asleep earlier. You may even be able to sleep longer without experiencing sleep disturbances because you’re more relaxed. There are many relaxing activities you could enjoy, like reading a book, doing puzzles, and even journaling or writing poetry. The goal is to wind down and relax into the evening, be that with whatever calming (non-arousing) activity of your liking.

4. Stay Active During the Day

Make sure you’re physically active during the day. Studies have shown that by engaging in at least 30 minutes of exercise a day, people started to notice an increased quality of sleep and experienced less poor sleep. Not only does the body become tired from the exercise, the biological processes associated with exercise and sleep quality can become engaged more.

5. Minimize Napping

Try to limit taking naps during the day. Getting used to taking longer naps during the day disrupts our circadian rhythms, or our internal clocks. If you’re so tired that you feel you must take a nap during the day, try limiting it to an hour or less. This way, you’ll still get some sleep benefits without ruining your nighttime sleep schedule. Power nap, anyone?

6. Use Warm Water

Take a hot bath or wash your face with warm water before laying down. As we all may know, drinking a cup of warm tea or another warm beverage relaxes our bodies a lot. If you take this a step further and wash your face with warm water before bedtime, you and your brain will automatically start to relax along with it and you’ll naturally start to get sleepy. Taking warm baths or showers can also help relax other parts of our bodies besides our brains, including our muscles and joints.

woman relaxing in bathtub

7. Talk to Your Doctor

Talk to a healthcare provider if you have consistent problems staying asleep or getting enough sleep. If you’ve tried seemingly everything to get a good night’s sleep and nothing seems to be working, it may be worth it to talk to a primary care physician or a sleep specialist to determine if you need sleep medicine or if you have any sleep disorders. At the very least, your doctor will be able to point you in the right direction and give you guidance so that you may finally be able to get a good night’s sleep.


There are a lot of side effects that people can experience from either acute sleep deprivation or chronic sleep deprivation, none of which are positive for us or our bodies. The primary part of our brain responsible for interpreting stimuli, the somatosensory cortex, becomes disturbed with any amount of sleep deprivation, which is why we can experience harsh side effects of it. There are many tips and tricks that people can take advantage of in order to combat sleep deprivation and get a full night’s sleep that everyone should take advantage of. We’re all deserving of the rest we need, and nothing should stop you from achieving the sleep you dream of!

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