Getting More Sleep Can Actually Make You Feel Less Pain, Study Says
Kelly Gonsalves is the sex and relationships editor at mindbodygreen. Her writings on sex, relationships, identity, and wellness have appeared at Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, The Washington Post, and elsewhere.
If you're looking for yet another reason to prioritize your sleep, new research now suggests getting more shut-eye at night might actually make you feel less pain—which could be a game-changer if you're someone who suffers from chronic pain, regularly deals with aches or illness, or generally has a physically strenuous day-to-day lifestyle for any reason. Published today in the Journal of Neuroscience, the new study found the sleep-deprived brain experiences "neural glitches" that increase our sensitivity to pain stimuli and block our natural pain relief system.
Researchers applied increasing levels of heat to the legs of 25 healthy adults in a lab setting to test their pain thresholds, all while their brains were being monitored by an fMRI scanner. They did this experiment twice: once after the participants had a full night of sleep and once after they'd been kept awake all night. The findings showed people could handle less heat when they were sleep-deprived than when fully rested.
"Anyone who's had persistent back pain knows that they don't sleep well when they're in pain, but what they also know is that when they don't sleep well, it hurts more the next day," said Adam Krause, a Ph.D. student at the University of California, Berkeley, and the study's lead author, in a news release. "What was actually somewhat surprising is that nearly 80 percent of our participants showed increased pain after sleep deprivation."
According to the fMRI scans, the sleep-deprived brains had an amplified response in the brain's somatosensory cortex (which is responsible for sensing pain) and lower activity in the nucleus accumbens (which is part of the brain's reward system, which typically relieves pain by flooding the system with more dopamine). The insula, another region responsible for interpreting pain signals and calling in the appropriate amount of the body's natural painkillers, also slowed down without sleep.
In other words, losing sleep kicks the brain's pain-sensing regions into high gear and stifles its built-in analgesic centers. That means you're apt to feel more pain when you're low on sleep.
The researchers even reproduced these associations through a second, similar study conducted through online surveys: They recruited 236 people to record their sleep quality and pain levels over the course of two nights and two days, and the findings still showed better sleep was correlated with less reported pain.
The researchers believe the findings offer a potential path forward for health providers working with patients suffering from chronic pain and who may be at risk of opiate dependency. "It's our hope that this study will bring greater attention to the role of sleep in treatment, particularly for pain," Krause said. "If we can reduce the use of opiate narcotics, we can hopefully reduce reduction rates and the dependency on these drugs that in fact actually disrupt sleep."
He added, "So for pain, doctor should prescribe good sleep. And the reason why is that we've shown that good sleep can reduce next-day pain. But actually, the one thing we've learned about sleep is that it touches every system in the body. So good sleep is not only good for pain, but it's good for the heart. It's good for the brain. It's good for metabolism and the immune system. So sleep represents this relatively easy low-cost, but also broadly effective prescription, not only for pain but for a variety of diseases."
Interestingly, the survey-based version of the study showed it wasn't sleep duration that lessened the experience of pain but rather sleep quality—that is, how deep and restorative the night of sleep subjectively felt to the person. So if you're struggling just to clock in enough hours asleep, consider starting by simply trying to improve the quality of the sleep you're already getting. (Here are a few M.D.-approved tips to get you started.)
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