The less sleep you get, the more you are sensitive to pain, according to a recent study by scientists from UC Berkeley. This finding is significant because we all know that being in pain disables us from getting proper sleep — so how are they related?

Matthew Walker, senior author and a professor of neuroscience and psychology, said that chronic sleeplessness impairs the brain’s ability to relieve the feeling naturally. Since sleep deprivation places the brain and its receptors in an inebriated-like state, the organic response to relieving pain (called the analgesic centers) weakens and makes the rest of the body feel it even more. In the same vein, the body also becomes more easily triggered by painful occurrences. 

sleep A recent study shows that giving your emotion a label might help in curbing your reactions. Pictured: A man takes a nap after drinking a coffee inside a Starbucks in Beijing. Photo: Getty Images/Nicolas Asfouri/AFP

Walker and Ph.D. student Adam Krause tested their theory by applying different degrees of heat to the legs of 24 healthy young adults while observing their brain activity. Through this exercise, they observed that the neural mechanisms in the brains of those with insufficient sleep responded a lot more slowly to the pain, so the relief was either in trickles or absent. Conversely, those with adequate sleep stimulated their analgesic responses quickly and were able to react less to the increasing heat.

In addition to the analgesic centers, the same study also found that the insula, which evaluates and processes pain signals, was also affected. Krause noted that this system is critical in the assessment of pain signals because it triggers the body’s natural painkillers to respond.

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine states that adults aged 18 to 60 years old should get at least seven hours of sleep per day to achieve optimal well-being. Those who sleep on fewer hours are more at risk of developing chronic disorders such as stress, diabetes, obesity, stroke and high blood pressure. It also said that only one in three Americans get the right amount of sleep necessary.

An article on WebMD reinforced this finding with comments from Monicka Haack, associate professor neurology at the Human Sleep & Inflammatory System Laboratory of the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. Haack said that short or frequently disrupted sleep increases one’s experience of pain after, adding that sleep can predict pain more than pain predicts one’s quality of sleep.