Do you spend your days craving a nap or a giant slice of greasy pizza? Are you moody, irritable, generally unhappy? Chances are you’re not getting enough shut eye. These sleepy symptoms often arise after a single bad night. The scary thing is how destructive lack of sleep can be over time. Here’s how sleep deprivation affects your body.
Sleep and Your Body
“I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” How often have you heard this shopworn phrase? Maybe you’ve uttered it yourself. This hard-driving mantra is unintentionally ironic because not getting enough sleep can actually make you die sooner. Plus, while you are alive you’ll likely deal with so many physical and mental health issues that your ascent to the top of the ladder will be abruptly halted. Incidentally, the quote is attributed to Warren Zevon who died of cancer at age 56.
Sleep is essential, as vital to your overall well being as diet and exercise. When we sleep, nearly every part of our body is altered. In our brain, neurons go from a wake to sleep cycle which sends signals throughout our cardiovascular, immune, and respiratory systems. If you’ve been exercising, sleep is when our relaxed muscles repair themselves. In order to enjoy the full benefits, you’ll need to experience the recommended five full sleep cycles which usually takes eight hours or so. That’s why so many doctors and scientists agree that adults should get between seven and nine hours of sleep every night in order to be healthy. These sleep cycles progress from the first stage of slow sleep to the fourth of rapid eye movement sleep. If your sleep is cut short, you’ll likely feel groggy and have trouble concentrating because the majority of mentally repairing REM occurs during the second half of your slumber. So what else happens when you don’t get enough sleep?
- You’ll gain weight. Weight gain is a common side effect of sleep deprivation. Two hormones work in tandem to manage your appetite. Leptin tells you that you’re full while ghrelin tells you that you’re hungry. Not getting enough sleep throws these hormones out of whack. Your body will underproduce leptin while over compensating with ghrelin. The result will be almost unending hunger. Since sleep deprivation can lower your body’s glucose tolerance, you’ll also be at heightened risk for diabetes along with obesity. A recent examination of multiple studies found that people who regularly got less than seven hours of sleep per night had higher body mass indexes than those who enjoyed the recommended amount. Perhaps most obviously, tired people are also less motivated to exercise which on its own contributes to weight gain and its associated health issues.
- You’ll be Forgetful and Moody. One of the benefits of a good night’s sleep is you’ll have an easier time remembering information and handling complex tasks. Research suggests that not only do tired people have trouble focusing, which impairs their ability to comprehend, but that during sleep we actually consolidate and process our memories –– vital for retaining new information. If you’ve ever felt cranky after a poor night’s sleep, you probably get the connection between poor sleep and a host of emotional and mental health issues. Inadequate sleep increases your risk of anxiety or depression. In fact anxious and depressed people consistently report getting inadequate sleep –– generally around six hours a night. If you’re bipolar, inadequate sleep can trigger a manic episode.
- You’ll Look Older. Just one bad night’s sleep seems sufficient to create dark circles and emphasize fine lines around your eyes. Over time, sleep deprivation’s effect on your face is significant. Your pituitary gland produces the human growth hormone somatotropin during the first three hours of sleep. This hormone helps your skin repair itself. During later REM sleep cycles, the stress hormone cortisol decreases even as collagen production accelerates. A protein, collagen gives your skin its elasticity and relative smoothness –– not getting enough sleep means tamping down its production. So instead of getting collagen injected into your skin, getting eight hours of sleep daily may be sufficient to slow the aging process.
- You’ll Get Sick Sooner. This is a big one. A healthy immune system requires a good night’s sleep. That’s because while you slumber, your immune system releases cytokine proteins. These proteins help protect your body from infection. If you get inadequate sleep, their production is suppressed. So are antibodies that are necessary to combat viruses. That means not getting enough ZZZs can increase your vulnerability to colds and the flu. Worse in this age of COVID, being tired increases your risk of contracting a respiratory illness.
To improve your sleep, try to engage in some form of moderate exercise daily. Stick to a regular bedtime and awake time. Limit or eliminate afternoon caffeine consumption and late evening alcohol. Two hours before bedtime, avoid blue-light emitting devices that can interfere with sleep (especially REM cycles). Consider enjoying a warm bath, sipping herbal tea, and/or reading a printed book. Design your bedroom for sleep with light-blocking curtains and cool circulating air. The key is to make sleep a priority. The life you save may be your own.
John Bankston is a published author of over 150 nonfiction books for children and young adults including biographies of Jonas Salk, Gerhard Domak, and Frederick Banting.