Everyone has heard the age-old admonition: “Don’t go to bed angry.” But is there any merit to it? You might want to think twice before hashing things out with your partner prior to sleep; a scientific study has now disproved the credence to this time-worn adage.
The saying comes from the concept that slipping into slumber while holding onto a negative memory engraves it in the brain, making it even harder to shake off in the long run. (These couples married 50+ years seem to know a thing or two about a long and happy marriage.)
However, according to a new study published in The Official Journal of International Society of Psychoneuroendocrinology, fighting with your partner while struggling with sleep deprivation equates to an increase in stress-related inflammatory responses—which in turn have been linked to higher risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and arthritis. The researchers studied 43 married couples who provided blood samples and reported on how many hours of sleep they had for the last two nights. After instructing the couples to discuss topics that tend to incite discord in their perspective relationships, they took more blood samples after the heated discussion.
Their data indicated that the combination of short sleep and marital conflict lead to heightened inflammation, a risk that partners’ emotion regulation strategies may counteract. If both partners collectively had less than seven hours of sleep throughout the previous two nights, the couple was more likely to argue and become increasingly hostile. Every hour of sleep lent itself to the argument greatly; for every hour of sleep lost, levels of two specific inflammatory markers rose by 6 percent. In essence, their results “highlighted the role of short sleep in more negative or punishing marital behavior.”
Another thing they noticed is how couples chose to fought greatly mattered. While couples who used unhealthy tactics in their disagreement had greater inflammatory responses (about a 10 percent increase with each hour less sleep), couples who used calmer and expressive emotions recorded lower levels of inflammation. (These are the ground rules to follow in your next relationship fight).
Ultimately, your best bet is getting more shut-eye to avoid long-term conflict. We’re not saying that one heated discussion at night will make you wake up with heart disease and diabetes the next morning, but continuously elevated levels of inflammation could put you at higher risk for a wide range of diseases.
And it’s not just your physical health that will take a toll. The longer you stay awake, the less efficient your brain becomes at burning energy needed to think rationally, and in turn, argue efficiently. Sleep’s primary function is to give your body time to replenish a molecule called adenosine triphosphate (ATP) in your cells. Dr. Charles Czeisler, chairman of the board of the National Sleep Foundation and chief of sleep medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, told BuzzFeed Life, “adenosine triphosphate is a molecule that researchers often call the energy currency for life. It’s in all cells, and it’s where your energy to do things comes from.”
This means that the less sleep you receive and the longer you stay awake, the less ATP you will have available to you. As your capacity to burn energy decreases, different parts of your brain such as the prefrontal cortex, the area responsible for judgment and self-control, work below their maximum abilities—meaning that you’re far more likely to blurt out something you’ll later regret. (In case you’re wondering, this is what happens to your body when you don’t get enough sleep).
He also points out that in deep sleep (REM cycle), the body stores memories. Although some use this notion to discourage going to sleep angry, doing so can actually have a positive effect. During REM sleep, your mind will integrate those memories with other memories that you had previously learned. Insight seems to be an important element of what happens during REM sleep, says Czeisler. That means that when you finally get some shut-eye and pause the argument, your brain will make sense of things while you sleep, giving yourself a subconscious way to solve whatever issue is at the heart of your fight in the first place.
Ultimately, science shows that there’s a likely chance that going to bed angry will give you the mental capacity to wake up with a clearer grasp of the situation—and how to resolve it. Sleep-deprived arguments can rapidly multiply into more fights in the future, so don’t stay up into the darkest hours to grapple with an issue. A resolution you reach at 3 a.m. (when your brain is not at its maximum capacity) will most likely be temporary, in which case, you aren’t really resolving anything anyway.
If you do find yourself stewing over something past midnight, just call it a night and give your brain some time to regenerate. It will give yourself a better chance to tackle it rationally, and even mitigate your likelihood of catching chronic diseases and conditions down the line. (If you’re worried you’ve caught one already, here are the signs of disease that are written all over your face).