Losing One Night of Sleep is Worse for Insomniacs

A new study conducted by researchers at Washington State University shows that individuals with chronic sleep-onset insomnia who pulled an all-nighter performed up to twice as bad on a reaction time task as healthy normal sleepers. 

Poor daytime functioning is a frequent complaint among those suffering from insomnia, said lead author Devon Hansen. However, previous studies have found that their daytime cognitive performance is not significantly degraded, seemingly suggesting that it is a perceived issue that does not reflect a real impairment. The WSU study of individuals with sleep-onset insomnia revealed that the impairment may in fact be real but hidden during the normal day–yet exposed after pulling an all-nighter, which impacted them much more than age-matched control subjects.

The finding caught the WSU research team by surprise.

“There has been a theory about what perpetuates insomnia that focuses on hyperarousal, an activation in their system that keeps those with insomnia from being able to wind down when they go to bed,” Hansen said. “We thought that this hyperarousal would protect them to some extent and had hypothesized that their performance after a night of total sleep deprivation would be better than normal healthy sleepers. Instead, we found the exact opposite.”

Hansen, who in a previous career worked as a therapist in a sleep clinic, said the study adds credibility to insomnia patients’ experiences. She also said it serves as a warning to poor sleepers that they should try to maintain a regular sleep schedule and avoid pushing their limits by staying up all night.

Hansen cautioned that since their study looked specifically at individuals with sleep-onset insomnia, their findings may not hold up in other insomnia subtypes, such as sleep-maintenance insomnia–which is characterized by difficulty staying asleep–and terminal insomnia–which involves early-morning awakenings. She plans to repeat the study in those groups to find out.