The Effects of Sleep Deprivation on Your Body
If you’ve ever spent a night tossing and turning, you already know how you’ll feel the next day — tired, agitated, and out of sync. But missing out on the 7-9 hours of recommended sleep does more than make you feel groggy and grumpy. The long-term effects of sleep deprivation are real.
It drains your mental abilities and puts your physical health at real risk. Science has also linked poor sleep with a number of health issues, from gaining weight to a weakened immune system.
Causes of sleep deprivation
In a nutshell, sleep deprivation is caused by a consistent lack of sleep or even a reduced quality of sleep. Regularly getting less than 7 hours of sleep can eventually lead to health consequences that affect your entire body. This could also be caused by an underlying sleep disorder.
Your body needs it’s sleep the same as it needs air and food to function correctly. Whilst you’re sleeping, your body heals itself and restores its natural chemical balance. Your brain also forges new thought connections and helps memory retention.
Without enough sleep, your brain and body systems won’t function as it should. It can also have a dramatic effect on your quality of life. A study also found that sleeping too little at night can increase the risk of early death.
The most noticeable signs of sleep deprivation are:
- Excessive sleepiness
- Frequent yawning
Stimulants, such as caffeine, aren’t enough to override your body’s natural profound need for rest and sleep. In fact, these can actually make sleep deprivation worse by making it harder to fall asleep at night. This could then lead to a cycle of night-time insomnia, followed by daytime caffeine consumption to combat the tiredness caused by the lost hours of sleep. Behind the scenes, chronic sleep deprivation can interfere with your body’s internal systems and cause more than just the initial signs and symptoms as those listed above.
Central nervous system
Your central nervous system is the main highway of information for your body. Sleep is necessary to keep it functioning correctly, but chronic insomnia can disrupt how your body normally sends and processes information.
During sleep, pathways are formed between nerve cells (neurons) in your brain that help you to remember the new information that you’ve learned. Sleep deprivation, however, leaves your brain exhausted and unable to perform its duties as well as would under normal circumstances.
You may also find it increasingly difficult to concentrate or to learn new things. The signals that your body send may also be delayed, decreasing your coordination and increasing your risk of accidents.
Sleep deprivation can also negatively affect your mental abilities and your emotional state. So, you may feel more impatient or prone to mood swings. It can also compromise the decision-making process and your creativity.
If sleep deprivation is allowed to continue long enough, then you could start suffering from hallucinations — seeing or hearing things that aren’t really there. Lack of sleep can also trigger mania in those who have bipolar mood disorder. Other psychological risks also include:
- Impulsive behaviour
- Suicidal thoughts
You could also end up experiencing microsleep during the day. During these episodes, you’ll fall asleep for a few to several seconds without even realising it. It is out of your control and it can be extremely dangerous, especially if you’re driving. It can also make you more prone to injury if you operate any heavy machinery at work and have a microsleep episode.
Whilst you’re sleeping, your immune system produces protective, infection-fighting substances such as antibodies and cytokines. It then uses these substances to combat foreign invaders, such as bacteria and viruses. Certain cytokines can also help you to sleep, giving your immune system more efficiency to help to defend your body against illness.
Sleep deprivation prevents your immune system from building up its defence. So if you don’t get enough sleep then your body may not be able to fend off invaders, and it may also take you longer to recover from illness.
Long-term sleep deprivation also increases your risk for chronic conditions, such as heart disease and diabetic mellitus.
The relationship between sleep and the respiratory system goes both ways. A night-time breathing disorder called such as OSA (obstructive sleep apnoea), can interrupt your sleep and lower the quality of sleep itself.
As you wake up throughout the night, this can cause sleep deprivation, which leaves you more vulnerable to respiratory infections such as the flu and the common cold. Sleep deprivation can also make any existing respiratory diseases such as chronic lung illness worse.
Along with not exercising enough and eating excessively, sleep deprivation is another risk factor for becoming overweight and obese. Sleep affects two hormonal levels, leptin and ghrelin, which control feelings of hunger and fullness.
Leptin tells your brain that you’ve had enough to eat. Without enough sleep, your brain reduces leptin and raises ghrelin, which is an appetite stimulant. The flux of these hormones could explain night-time snacking or why someone may overeat later in the night.
A lack of sleep can also make you feel too tired to do any exercise. Over time, reduced physical activity can make you gain weight, because you’re not burning enough calories and not building muscle mass.
Sleep deprivation also causes your body to release less insulin after you eat. Insulin helps to reduce your blood sugar (glucose) level. Sleep deprivation can also lower the body’s tolerance for glucose and is associated with insulin resistance. These disruptions can lead to diabetes mellitus and obesity.
Sleep affects the processes that help keep your heart and blood vessels healthy, including those that affect your blood pressure, blood sugar and inflammation levels. It also plays a vital role in your body’s natural ability to heal and repair the blood vessels and the heart.
People who don’t sleep enough are more likely to get cardiovascular disease. One report linked insomnia to an increased risk of having a stroke or heart attack.
Hormone production is dependent on your sleep. For testosterone production, you need at least 3 hours of uninterrupted sleep. Waking up throughout the night could affect this hormone production process. This interruption can also affect your growth hormone production, especially in children and adolescents. These hormones help the body to build muscle mass and repair cells and tissues, in addition to other growth functions.
The pituitary gland releases the growth hormone throughout each day, but adequate sleep and exercise can also help the release of this hormone.
Treatment for sleep deprivation
Getting the right amount of sleep, typically 7 to 9 hours each night, is the most basic form of treatment for sleep deprivation.
However, this can often be easier said than done, especially if you’ve been deprived of precious sleep for several weeks or longer. After this point, you may need additional help from your doctor or a sleep specialist who, if needed, can diagnose and treat a possible sleep disorder.
Sleep disorders can make it difficult to get some quality sleep at night. They may also increase your risk for the above effects of sleep deprivation on the body.
Here’s some of the most common types of sleep disorders:
- Obstructice Sleep Apnoea
- Restless Leg Syndrome
- Circadian Rhythm Disorders
To diagnose these conditions, your doctor may ask you to undertake in a sleep study. This is traditionally conducted at a formal sleep centre, but there are also options to measure your sleep quality at home.
If you are diagnosed with a sleep disorder, then you may be given medication or a device to help to keep your airway open at night (in the case of obstructive sleep apnoea), to help combat the disorder so that you can get a better night’s sleep on a more regular basis.
The best way to prevent sleep deprivation is to make sure you get adequate sleep and follow the recommended guidelines for your age group, which is 7 to 9 hours sleep for most adults aged 18-64.
Other ways in which you can get back on track with a healthy sleep schedule are:
- Limiting the amount of daytime naps (or avoid them altogether would be best)
- Go to bed at about the same time every night and get up at the same time on a morning
- Try not to have any caffeine past 12pm or at least a few hours before bedtime
- Stick to your bedtime schedule routine during weekends and holidays
- Spend an hour before bed relaxing; by reading, meditating, or taking a bath
- Avoid having any heavy meals within a few hours before bedtime
- Try not use your mobile, tablet or electronic devices prior to bedtime
- Exercising regularly, but not in the hours close to bedtime
- Reduce your alcohol intake
If you continue to have problems sleeping at night and are fighting daytime fatigue, then try talking to your doctor. They can test for any underlying health conditions that may be getting in the way of your sleep schedule.