Effects of Sleep Deprivation - Featured

Negative Effects of Sleep Deprivation on Your Health

by Dr. Lina Velikova, MD

Systemic sleep loss is a common problem in modern society that affects many people at some point in their lives. According to insomnia stats, almost 40 million US adults suffer from chronic insomnia. Most adults need six to eight hours of sleep, and children need even more, although sleep requirements tend to vary from person to person. Among the worst effects of sleep deprivation, the winner undoubtedly is the overall harm to your physical and mental health.

Modern science still doesn’t tell us enough about sleep—like how it has evolved over time and what its specific benefits to the body are. From an evolutionary point of view, the need for sleep is a kind of weakness—while we sleep defenseless in the dark, our body is exposed to a number of dangers. However, the long-term effects of sleep deprivation are even more dangerous than our helplessness during sleep. That’s why we’ll be discussing some of the problems that accompany short- and long-term sleep deprivation in this article.

And keep in mind, sleep is also an advantage—healthy sleep has several benefits for the body and the mind. Statistically, people sleeping between six and eight hours a day live longer. Interestingly, in the case of sleep deprivation, death isn’t a risk associated with the condition.

Even so, less than six hours of sleep increases the risk of developing heart disease or depression, and even the risk of brain damage can be a concern. When your body wants to sleep and you’re awake, it carries risks for your metabolism, which in turn enhances the risk of insulin resistance (a condition commonly referred to as “pre-diabetes”) and type 2 diabetes. Conversely, more than 10 to 11 hours of sleep daily can enhance the risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

Sleep Deprivation Effects on the Brain

What exactly happens when we don’t get enough sleep? After the first sleepless night, the mesolimbic brain system, which corresponds to the body’s reward system, is stimulated, increasing dopaminergic activity. This leads to the release of excess amounts of dopamine followed by feelings of higher energy, cheerfulness, joy, and even enhanced libido.

However, within 36 hours after one’s last sleep, the body transitions into what many researchers view as one of the more advanced sleep deprivation stages. Here, the brain starts to “turn off” or reduce activity in areas associated with action planning, resulting in more impulsive and uncontrollable behavior.

The real fatigue sets in following these symptoms: reactions slow down and the brain’s ability to receive and process information becomes more complicated. This is the time during the sleep deprivation stages when feelings of nausea might occur.

Within 48 hours, the body loses its ability to metabolize enough glucose for energy. This, in turn, takes a large toll on the immune system, drastically decreasing its ability to defend the body. By the third day of complete sleeplessness, there’s a chance that the person who hasn’t slept will begin to hallucinate.

What Happens When You’re Sleep Deprived

Effects of Sleep Deprivation - Health Problems

The most prolonged sleepless period documented by modern science is 264 hours or 11 days. Although decreased cognitive abilities and intense irritability have been observed, long-lasting injuries haven’t been reported. Among the courageous people who have been subjected to extended sleep deprivation under medical supervision, no medical, psychological, neurological, or psychiatric deviations have been reported.

There are rare diseases, such as fatal familial insomnia (severe insomnia of a hereditary nature), where chronic insomnia leads to a progressive lowering of one’s vital functions. The side effects of sleep deprivation may not appear for up to 18 months after developing the condition in this case.

Moreover, insomnia is a common complaint, and it typically isn’t problematic if it happens seldom and leaves no lasting effects. If it becomes chronic with more frequent episodes, it can be a symptom of several diseases. In these cases, you should consider seeking immediate medical advice.

Sleep Deprivation Effects on Physical Health

Sleep deprivation can inevitably affect motivation and cause more prominent fatigue. Some research established a link between insufficient sleep and the risk of cancer. In particular, people with disturbances in their circadian rhythm and biological clock—due to working long shifts, for example—have a higher risk of developing cancer. A publication in the International Cancer Journal reported a link between women’s irregular work schedules and the formation of breast cancer.

Effects of Sleep Deprivation - Skin Problems

Additionally, one of the short-term effects of sleep deprivation is bad skin. It was shown that poor sleep quality is strongly correlated with chronic skin problems, according to a study by the University of Wisconsin. Studies also demonstrated that when the skin is damaged by the sun or other factors, it doesn’t recover as well in sleep-deprived people. Furthermore, their skin shows more signs of aging.

Hormonal imbalance is another of the physical effects of sleep deprivation and is also closely related to a high body mass index and obesity. Furthermore, people who don’t sleep enough are less likely to refrain from high-calorie foods and generally have trouble controlling their impulses. Sleep deprivation also has a negative impact on the heart. In fact, people who are sleep deprived may experience increased blood pressure or an irregular heart rhythm. The concentration of the body’s C-reactive protein elevates as well, which produces a state of inflammation.

Physical Symptoms of Sleep Deprivation

Sometimes a lack of sleep can lead to immediate physical symptoms. Some of these can include impaired peripheral vision, double vision (diplopia), and blurred vision. In fact, the longer you stay awake, the more visual difficulties you’ll experience and the more likely you are to experience hallucinations, as mentioned above.

We should also note that when it comes to the causes of sleep deprivation, when people sleep, the body slows down its average urine production. However, when someone is devoid of sleep, this mechanism doesn’t kick in, which leads to a continued production of urine at night. While this condition in children usually leads to wetting the bed, adults experience so-called nocturia—the condition of waking up often with a need to urinate. This condition then heightens one’s level of sleep deprivation.

Eating Habits and the Psychological Effects of Sleep Deprivation

Sleep deprivation also affects the psyche in many different ways. Perhaps the biggest one is the increased desire to eat more. For example, there have been dozens of studies that investigate sleep problems in relation to people’s eating habits in the last few years. What’s worse, unhealthy nutritional behavior is associated with severe chronic health problems like obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, to name a few. With this in mind, treatment requires the patient to break certain habits or tendencies as well as improve their sleep patterns.

As most of the sleep deprivation effects on behavior are well established, it shouldn’t be surprising that one of the main factors influencing food intake is sleep. Food intake is driven by homeostatic (i.e., biological), emotional, cognitive, social, and environmental factors. This means there can be a direct correlation between sleep disturbances and one’s diet. This is because the less someone sleeps, the more they need to increase their food intake as the body tries to compensate for its nighttime energy deficit.

A Scientific Explanation

Many sleep deprivation articles on the subject support this statement. In fact, several studies have shown that after less sleep, one’s daily intake of food increases by at least 20%. However, participants didn’t perceive this change on a conscious level. Overeating, after a period of inactivity, has a biological basis in the body’s desire to maintain homeostasis.

Effects of Sleep Deprivation - Caloric Foods

Other studies have shown that limited sleep leads not only to consuming more food but also to eating more caloric foods. This has a neurological explanation: namely, after sleep restriction, a functional magnetic resonance study shows increased activity in the brain regions associated with taste and the sense of satisfaction.

So can lack of sleep cause permanent brain damage? Studies in pediatric patients indicate this is not the case. One study (2010) showed that infants up to six months of age who’ve had a restless sleep are more likely to have irregular food intake between two and four years of age. More recent studies also verify this relationship and demonstrate an association between short-term sleep and a lower intake of fruits and vegetables. Abridged sleep is also associated with irregular meals and too much fast food consumption.

What Happens to Your Body When You Don’t Get Enough Sleep?

Sleep disturbances lead to a hormonal imbalance. More specifically, lack of sleep affects the metabolic hormones leptin and ghrelin. Leptin is an adipocytokine that sends satiety signals to the appetite control center in the hypothalamus of the brain.

Conversely, ghrelin is an appetite-stimulating hormone that sends signals from the stomach to the brain to produce an increase in appetite, which is linked to the sleep deprivation symptoms mentioned in the previous section.

Studies show that leptin levels are significantly different in people who sleep poorly than in those who sleep well.

Low levels of leptin occur in so-called “short sleepers,” as well as in those who are deliberately sleep-restricted. This means that sleep deprivation affects the availability of leptin to accurately account for an energy imbalance. A reduction of leptin availability due to insufficient sleep is associated with an increased appetite for sweet, salty, and carbohydrate-rich foods.

Other sleep deprivation articles emphasize a dose-dependent reduction in hunger and food consumption when greater amounts of leptin are administered into the blood. Put simply, sleep disturbances reduce leptin availability. Because leptin helps one feel less hungry, those who are sleep deprived will have a bigger appetite.

The literature on sleep deprivation also often discusses the relationship between lack of sleep and disturbances in cognitive function. Sleep deprivation affects centers in the brain’s prefrontal cortex responsible for control, purposeful behavior, and the cognitive modulation of impulses and emotions, both in adults and in children. With this in mind, it’s no surprise that impulse control is one of the most common effects of sleep deprivation on students.

Tips for Better Sleep That Promise Effective Solutions

  • Eat a light dinner and don’t have food and drinks within two hours of going to bed.
  • No alcohol at bedtime. Although alcohol makes it quick and easy to fall asleep, it is also the cause of frequent insomnia.
  • Wear socks in bed. According to science, warmer feet help you fall asleep faster.
  • Reduce caffeine use. Excessive caffeine consumption, especially in the afternoon, could easily be a reason you stay up at night.
  • Take a short daytime nap (but no more than 30 minutes) if you’re still wondering how to prevent sleep deprivation. This won’t interfere with your sleep at night, but it will improve your memory, alertness, and work capacity.
  • Stay activite, but not right before sleep. According to research, people who train regularly sleep significantly better. It doesn’t require much—just add a few minutes of physical exercise during the day to improve your sleep.
  • Maintain a steady daily routine. When you have trouble with sleeping, it’s a good idea to follow the same routine, even on weekends. If you lie back down after getting up in the morning or go to bed too late, you’ll only disturb your body’s natural clock.
  • Consider meditation or prayer. Try to imagine that you’re in a quiet, lovely place to help your body relax. In addition, doing this may alleviate some of the social effects of sleep deprivation.
  • Take a warm bath at bedtime. It might help you sleep more quickly, as well as fall asleep more deeply. This is because as we come out of the tub, our body temperature begins to fall, imitating the natural process our body goes through before falling asleep.
  • Get the right amount of sunlight. Early in the morning, it helps to feel the sun’s rays for at least 15 minutes. This helps regulate your body’s biological clock.

Sleep in a Pleasant Environment

Effects of Sleep Deprivation - Sleep Environment

  • Sleep in a dark room. When we talk about complex sleep deprivation treatment, we have to keep in mind that light is a signal for the brain to stay awake and alert. Thus, any sources of light—such as a phone, TV, laptop, etc.—start sending a different signal shortly before bedtime. Even a digital clock’s light can prevent you from falling asleep. Turn off every electronic device and pull the curtains one hour before going to bed. If you can’t block the irritating light, consider using a sleep mask at night.
  • The right temperature is one of the most effective sleep deprivation solutions. A room that is too hot or too cold may be the cause of poor sleep. The ideal sleep temperature is between 60° and 66° Fahrenheit.
  • Keep your room quiet. If you have trouble falling asleep due to unpleasant or irritating sounds like a snoring partner or a ticking clock, use earplugs.
  • Add in some pleasant smells. It’s thought that soothing scents help us fall asleep faster.
  • The bed is just for sleeping. Don’t work on your computer or scroll social media in it if you want to alleviate your sleep deprivation symptoms.
  • Have a good mattress. Sometimes the reason you can’t fall asleep is right beneath you. No matter whether it has lost its softness or is too short, experts recommend changing your mattress every 5–10 years.
  • Get a new pillow. Sometimes finding the right pillow, just like a mattress, can solve sleep problems. Choose your pillow according to your most common sleep position. If you sleep on your stomach, use a soft pillow; if you sleep on your side, choose a firm pillow; and if you sleep on your back, get a medium-hard pillow.

In addition, numerous technological innovations can help you improve sleep quality.

FAQ

What are the effects of lack of sleep?

Sleep deprivation has several adverse effects on your health, putting you at risk for potentially dangerous conditions such as heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes, and depression. Other adverse effects include a higher risk for accidents, a decreased sex drive, older-looking skin, memory problems, a reduced work capacity, impaired judgment, and weight gain.

Can you catch up on lost sleep?

When you’re sleep deprived, you’d expect that getting extra sleep would help make things better. However, a recent study from Harvard Medical School demonstrated that this isn’t the case. The findings concluded that it’s nearly impossible to “catch up on sleep.”

Even when you sleep extra hours to compensate for not having enough rest, there’s no real way to recoup. This is especially bad news for shift workers such as doctors, truckers, and law enforcement officers.

Can lack of sleep make you crazy?

It’s well known that people with some psychological problems, such as depression, anxiety, paranoia, bipolar disorder, and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, have sleep problems. However, new research suggests that this could also work the opposite way. It seems that persistent sleep deprivation may cause and exacerbate several common mental illnesses as well.

Conclusion

Coping with sleep deprivation usually requires a broad approach that takes several different measures into account. Even if there’s no likelihood of fully recovering from this condition, it’s best to try to mitigate the unpleasant effects of sleep deprivation as much as we can. After all, sleep deprivation can have a huge impact on a person’s physical and mental health and quality of life.

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