The Health Risks of Not Enough Sleep

Chronic sleep deprivation can affect your health.

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Author: Diane Dean, RN, LPC

One last email. One more page. Within the quick-paced race of contemporary life, sleep is often the activity that ends up getting the short end of the stick. While we all can relate to the concentration-depleting effects of getting too little shut eye, who knew that poor sleep had such far-reaching effects when it comes to health? Although scientists still dispute the precise biological reasons for sleep, we know that sleep is great medicine. Many detrimental side effects, beyond just feeling a bit groggy and loopy during the next day, result from chronic sleep deprivation.  For instance, difficulty focusing, lapses in both attention and short-term memory, and even depressive tendencies can occur. Without consistently getting enough sleep, you can also suffer more significant medical complications over the long run.

Heart Disease

Lack of sleep can cause elevated levels of stress hormones in the blood, particularly cortisol. Normally, cortisol levels begin to decrease in the evening as the body prepares for sleep. However, in sleep-deprived individuals, evening cortisol levels are much higher than well-rested individuals. These stress hormones act upon the body to increase blood pressure. Therefore, hypertension, which can lead to serious complications later in life, such as heart failure and strokes, results from chronic sleep deprivation.

Obesity

Lack of sleep also packs on the pounds. Simply being awake for longer periods of time allows for more opportunities to snack, in addition to having less energy the following day for exercise. Hormones controlling appetite shift to abnormal levels even after just one sleep-deprived night. Leptin, a hormone, inhibits our appetite, and leptin levels in sleep-deprived individuals remain lower, leading to an increased appetite. Furthermore, a hormone called ghrelin, which induces hunger, increases after sleep deprivation. All of these factors combined may contribute to the positive association between sleep deprivation and an increased body mass index (BMI).

Diabetes

The correlation between diabetes and sleep deprivation is a bit harder to sort out. At the very least, obesity serves as a serious risk factor for developing Type II Diabetes, and lack of sleep can lead to obesity. However, sleep-deprived subjects remained more resistant to insulin than individuals receiving a proper amount of sleep, even after only a few days. This may arise from several pathways. Primarily, the stress hormone cortisol also serves to increase the body’s resistance to insulin, mimicking a pre-diabetic state. A recent study conveys a shocking result--that individuals who only received 4.5 hours of sleep a night for one week had 30% higher insulin resistance than participants who were allowed to sleep for 8.5 hours a night.

Sleeping Better

Most scientists who study sleep agree that these risks can be mitigated simply by making sleep a priority and being sure to grab around eight hours a night. It can help to remove “stimulating factors” – such as laptops, TVs, and other electronics – from your place of slumber. Also, limiting your intake of beverages containing either caffeine or alcohol will make falling asleep easier. In addition, there are many herbal and mineral supplements that function as sleep aids. St. John’s wort is a perennial herb that, in addition to alleviating insomnia in some cases, is also thought to help treat depression.3 Melatonin supplements have also been shown to promote healthy sleep4, as melatonin is a hormone that regulates the circadian rhythm. Sleep, glorious sleep. Regardless of whichever method you choose to procure a good night’s rest, your body and longevity will thank you!

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3 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2234633/

4 http://www.sleepfoundation.org/article/sleep-topics/melatonin-and-sleep