Many people have experienced sleep deprivation at some point in their lives. Office workers sometimes rack up the overtime hours, foregoing sleep to meet a deadline. New moms proclaim that they’re verified members of Team No Sleep as they stay up all night, nursing their newborns. Others suffer from insomnia or other sleep disorders.
Whatever the reason for it, a lack of sleep is never fun. But its effects go beyond repeated yawns and a strong desire to siesta on your desk. Read on to find out how sleep deprivation could be affecting your health and what you can do to get a better night’s sleep.
Surprising Effects of Sleep Deprivation
The standard recommendation is seven to nine hours of sleep a night. While the actual number may vary from person to person, there are telltale signs of a lack of sleep: crankiness, fatigue, a lack of focus. But chronic sleep deprivation can affect you in other surprising ways:
It can lead to weight gain. Studies have shown a link between a lack of sleep and unhealthier food choices, like late-night snacking and munching on junk food. One small study at the University of Chicago found that sleep-deprived study subjects ate more and unhealthier snacks in between meals. Research suggests that a lack of sleep activates the part of the brain associated with rewards, awakening a desire for unhealthier foods. With chronic sleep deprivation comes the repeated activation of this system, repeated unhealthy snacking, and weight gain over time.
It can weaken your immune system. According to the U.S. National Sleep Foundation explains, a lack of sleep means your body produces less of the protein called cytokines, which plays a role in immune response. The foundation explains, “Cytokines are both produced and released during sleep, causing a double whammy if you skimp on shut-eye. Chronic sleep loss even makes the flu vaccine less effective by reducing your body’s ability to respond.”
You should take special care to get the recommended number of hours during flu season to keep your immune system in tiptop condition and prevent you from catching the bug. Already caught the cold? Get some rest to help you recover faster.
It can affect your mental wellbeing. With just one night of sleep deprivation, you can already feel the effects on your mood the next day, so it’s not hard to imagine how chronic sleep deprivation can lead to mood disorders.
While the relationship between sleep and mood disorders and psychiatric conditions is certainly complex, studies have shown that those with sleep disorders tend to have higher levels of depression and anxiety. The U.S. National Sleep Foundation states that those with insomnia are 10 times more likely to have clinical depression and 17 times more likely to have clinical anxiety, while those with obstructive sleep apnea are 5 times more likely to suffer from clinical depression. This may be because sleep disruption has an effect on brain activity and neurochemicals related to mood.
It can increase your risk for diabetes. Getting just four to six hours of sleep a night can really disrupt your hormones, lessening the production of the blood sugar-regulating insulin and increasing the production of the stress hormone cortisol. The U.S. National Sleep Foundation explains that the net effect is more glucose in the bloodstream, increasing the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. And, as earlier mentioned, a lack of sleep can lead to unhealthy food choices, which exacerbates the blood sugar situation, increasing your risk even further.
It can put you at risk for heart disease. Chronic sleep deprivation can lead to conditions that can be bad for your heart, including an increase in blood pressure and more cortisol, along with other hormones that lead to inflammation.
Say Goodbye to Sleepless Nights
If you toss and turn night after night and still haven’t figured out how to fall asleep, you can try these tips:
- Stick to a schedule. Be consistent with your bedtimes and wake-up times, even on weekends.
- Get moving! Exercise helps—but don’t do it within a few hours of bedtime as this could energize you instead of relax you.
- Keep your phone out of the bedroom. The artificial light it emits can keep you up.
- Make sure your room is cool, dark, and comfortable.
- If you’re a coffee drinker, try to cut off your coffee supply by 2 p.m. Even though you feel like you fall asleep right away, the lingering caffeine can have an effect on the quality of sleep.
- Try a natural sleep supplement. Talk to your doctor about taking melatonin to help you sleep better. Or you can try having a relaxing cup of chamomile tea before bed—the herb is said to have a tranquilizing effect.