The negative effects of poor sleep habits have been well documented; however, research has also revealed a little-known negative effect—repeated nights of sleep deprivation can lead to problems with self-control. There is a complex relationship between glucose levels, glucose utilization, and the human capacity for self-control. Lack of sleep interferes with the brain cells’ ability to absorb glucose and, thus, to control impulses.

According to researchers at Clemson University, a sleep-deprived individual is at an increased risk for lack of self-control, which leads to impulsive desires, poor attention capacity, and compromised decision making. Self-control allows individuals to monitor responses; make decisions when presented with conflicting desires; forego temporary pleasure to meet long-term goals; and control damaging social behavior such as addictions, excessive gambling, and overspending.

The Controlled Attention Model maintains that sleep-deprived individuals suffer from low performance on tasks that require too much effort to complete. One study indicates that, when given a choice, sleep-deprived persons will choose less demanding activities to accommodate for decreased capacity. Therefore, good sleep habits could enhance a person’s ability to choose and tackle difficult tasks.

In the same way that physical activity depletes physical energy, self-control exertion depletes mental energy. Not only that, but the energy resources that allow for better self-control are more quickly depleted than replenished. This means that the capacity for self-control can vary as each day progresses. Because sleep restores physiological energy resources, a good night’s rest replenishes the ability for self-control and helps provide the necessary willpower to make better decisions, such as choosing a healthier snack, being more honest, or resisting temptation.

Individuals prone to lack of self-control can evaluate their sleep habits and pay attention to red flags such as the inability to fall asleep, poor sleep quality, inconsistent sleep times, and excessive sleep deprivation. Preventative measures for any of these issues begin with implementing good sleep hygiene, which comprises regulating sleep and wake-up times, preparing an environment conducive to sleep, avoiding caffeine and exercise close to bedtime, limiting or avoiding naps throughout the day, and engaging in relaxing activities to wind down at night.

Sleep and self-control have long been viewed as separate processes but can now be seen as a more integrated system. Scientists in the sleep field and scientists in the cognitive-based self-control field who once worked separately can now work together. By combining studies of sleep and self-control, we can better understand how the interaction among good sleep habits, physiological energy reserves, and an individual’s personal choices impact self-control, providing a valuable means to improve long-term health and productivity.