People have an inherent understanding of why sleep is important. It recharges the body during the night and lets us face each day bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.
Of course, most people also suffer from a lack of sleep or a lack of quality sleep. This can be due to environmental factors—like noise—personal habits, health reasons, or stress.
Regardless of why you might be getting a lack of sleep, the side effects of lack of sleep on your health will be the same.
Although it may seem like you can get by on subpar sleep without issue, the truth is that a lack of sleep causes a series of subtle and not-so-subtle detrimental effects on the body. Read on to learn about these side effects, including heart problems, respiratory problems, an increased diabetes risk, and more.
You’ll also find out how much sleep you actually need, as well as some quick home remedies for sleep deprivation. Let’s get started…
What Happens If I Don’t Sleep?
In today’s busy world, you may ask yourself this question quite often. Sleep deprivation, or lack of sleep, simply happens when you don’t get enough sleep, your sleep is interrupted, or you don’t get any sleep at all.
An occasional night without enough sleep will leave you feeling irritable and tired the next day; however, it will not impact your health. But several sleepless nights spent tossing and turning in bed will lead to brain fog, and this makes decision-making and concentration difficult. As a result, you may feel fatigued and even fall asleep during the day.
Your risk of injury, especially while driving, also is increased. Moreover, when lack of sleep continues, this increases diabetes risk; kills sex drive; and leads to respiratory problems, skin issues, memory failures, and more.
The following is a deeper analysis of the many side effects of lack of sleep to consider:
1. It Weakens the Immune System
A less immediately obvious side effect of sleep deprivation is the fact that your body won’t be able to muster its normal defenses. The immune system produces various substances—like cytokines and antibodies—to help keep foreign presences in check and nip any troubling bacteria or viruses in the bud.
These substances need to be renewed like any other part of the body and their production also needs to increase when an invader is detected. Both of these functions are slowed in cases of sleep deprivation.
A lack of quality sleep means that you will find yourself falling prey more often to colds and minor infections and that any existing illnesses will take longer to heal.
2. Increases Diabetes Risk
Lack of sleep increases the risk of diabetes and out of control blood sugar levels. When your blood sugar is really high, your kidneys try to solve this problem by urinating. Consequently, you are likely getting up throughout the night to go to the bathroom, and this will lead to sleep problems.
Your body can react to sleep loss with insulin resistance—a diabetes precursor. Insulin is needed to help the body use glucose as an energy source. When a person suffers from insulin resistance, the cells fail to efficiently use insulin, and this leads to high blood sugar levels.
Diabetes results when your body does not use or properly produce enough insulin. Insulin problems can also result in heart, nerve, kidney, and eye problems.
High blood sugar is also a red flag for sleep issues since people feeling tired will eat more for energy, and this encourages intake of sugary foods that can increase blood sugar. Sleep deprivation can also manifest as pre-diabetes.
3. Respiratory Problems
A lack of sleep can also lead to respiratory problems. For instance, a nighttime breathing disorder called obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) can interrupt sleep and reduce sleep quality as well.
OSA will cause you to wake up throughout the night, which leads to sleep deprivation and increases your vulnerability to respiratory issues like the flu or common cold. A lack of sleep can also worsen chronic lung illnesses.
4. Hurts Your Heart
Although lack of sleep may not directly cause heart disease, it may influence certain risk factors for heart problems.
A review of 15 studies of about 475,000 people published in the European Heart Journal in 2011 found that short sleepers had a 48% increased risk of developing or dying from coronary heart disease in seven- to 25-year follow-up periods. There was also a 15% greater risk of dying or developing a stroke during that timeframe.
At the same time, people who averaged nine hours or more of sleep per night had a 38% increased risk of dying or getting coronary heart disease, while also increasing their risk of stroke by 65%.
Other research shows a link between shortened sleep and an increase in coronary artery calcification, which is a good predictor of coronary artery disease. Shorter amounts of sleep also result in worsened high blood pressure and heart rates.
Since your blood pressure and heart rate naturally decline at night, not getting enough sleep means your blood pressure and heart rate will not lower as they should.
5. It Gives You the Munchies
As we mentioned earlier, tiredness often leads to snacking. A lack of sleep causes your body to lower its amounts of the hormone leptin (appetite suppressant) and then raise its levels of ghrelin (appetite stimulant), meaning you will find yourself hungrier and more prone to overeat. The reason for this is relatively straightforward: if the body can’t sleep to recover its energy, then it will do so through another means.
Consequently, you will find yourself craving more sugary or fatty foods in order to get their easy boosts to energy levels. Additionally, your metabolism tends to slow down in cases of sleep deprivation. This, combined with the cravings and appetite changes, can lead to unwanted weight gain and the associated health issues.
6. Your Skin Will Suffer
You may have noticed that a lack of sleep can make someone appear older or give their skin a more worn-out appearance. This is because sleep is a prime time for the body to get to work on repairing damaged cells and renewing old ones. If you don’t get enough sleep, this can’t happen as effectively, and those old and damaged skin cells will start taking their toll on your appearance.
7. You Will Sleep Anyway
There is a phenomenon called micro-sleep that appears as a side effect of sleep deprivation. It’s when your brain effectively falls asleep for short intervals—usually no more than five seconds or so at a time. In addition to being disorienting and confusing, micro-sleep can be extremely dangerous if it should happen when you are doing activities like driving.
8. Your Coordination Will Be “Off”
A lack of sleep generally makes you weaker since your muscles lack their normal levels of energy. This is one of the reasons why your eyelids might get heavy or you have vision problems when sleep deprived—the muscles that control eye movement are faltering.
Your ability to process space and coordinate your body will also suffer. This is most obviously apparent when trying to engage in precision tasks, but it can show in any number of ways—tripping, bonking into things, or having trouble with stairs being the most common.
Simply going up or down a staircase involves a surprising amount of processing power and coordination.
9. Lack of Emotional Control
It takes a fair bit of energy and mental power to not do something. When sleep deprived, this ability is restricted and you will find yourself more inclined to blurt things out or otherwise act more impulsively.
You will also be more susceptible to emotional stimulus and will be more prone to bouts of anxiety, anger, sadness, or giddiness, depending on what you’re exposed to. Heightened irritability is, of course, also going to show up.
10. Memory Failures
A lack of sleep makes it harder to recall memories and to form new ones. The weaker ability to recall comes from the general sluggishness and slowing of the brain’s processing power when sleep deprived. The difficulty in forming new memory is slightly more involved. Basically, it is easier to remember things when you are actually focusing on them.
The reason it’s easy to forget where you put your keys is because such activities are usually done without thought or attention. When sleep deprived, you can’t focus as well and, consequently, your brain can’t form memories as well as you might like.
Not surprisingly, the memory problems increase the longer you stay awake. In 1959, radio DJ Peter Tripp kept himself up to raise money for the March of Dimes. By hour 100, he had forgotten the alphabet.
Visual disturbances and hallucinations tend to kick in during prolonged cases of sleep deprivation. Although these can be terrifying and aggravate certain psychological conditions, their historical documentation can also be fascinating.
In the case of the above-mentioned Peter Tripp, his hallucinations began at around the 120-hour mark. Among other results, he became convinced his shoes were full of spiders, that a desk drawer was on fire, and that a man in a dark overcoat was an undertaker.
12. Constant Mood Change
Closely tied to a lack of emotional control, a lack of sleep can also lead to frequent mood changes and a greater risk of mental health problems. Sleep deprivation can bring on mood and anxiety disorders such as generalized anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Many symptoms of mood disorders also overlap with sleep problems. For example, potential symptoms of mood and sleep problems include difficulty making decisions or concentrating, fatigue, headaches, and reduced sex drive. People with chronic insomnia also often have anxiety and a greater risk of suicide. PTSD can also lead to sleep loss and nightmares.
13. It Causes Accidents
Lack of sleep has been a factor in some of the biggest disasters in history, including the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989, the nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl in 1986, and the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island in 1979.
Research shows that poor-quality sleep and sleep loss leads to injuries and accidents when at work. One study found that workers who complained about excessive daytime sleepiness had significantly more accidents at work. The workers also had more sick days per accident on the job.
Sleep loss is also a daily public safety hazard for drivers. This is because drowsiness can reduce reaction time as much as driving drunk. In the U.S., it is estimated that fatigue causes 1,550 crash-related deaths and 100,000 automobile crashes each year.
14. Digestive Disorder
Another unpleasant side effect of lack of sleep is a digestive disorder. Research published in the journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings in 2004 found that people with insomnia frequently suffer from heartburn, indigestion, or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) symptoms such as diarrhea, constipation, gas, and bloating.
From the study, 39% reported insomnia, and 10% also had digestive problems, 13% had frequent heartburn, 15% had IBS, and 15% had stomach pain disturbing their sleep.
Research also links sleep dysfunction with gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), colon cancer, and liver disorders. Digestive disorders can also lead to less energy during the day and reduced sleep quality.
Also, pro-inflammatory cytokines have been associated with sleep dysfunction. Alterations in cytokines have been seen in cases of GERD, IBD, colorectal cancer, and liver disorders as well.
15. It Kills Sex Drive
Sleep deprivation will also reduce your sex drive, or libido. Men and women who lack sleep have reported lowered libidos and an overall reduced interest in sex. A reduced libido may also result from sleepiness, depleted energy levels, and increased tension in the body.
Sleep apnea may additionally reduce libido in men. One study published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism in 2002 suggests that men with sleep apnea may also have reduced testosterone levels. For the study, nearly half of the men with severe sleep apnea had also secreted very low testosterone levels at night.
How Much Sleep Do You Actually Need?
How much sleep we need is often due to our age. Specifically, studies show that teenagers need eight to 10 hours of sleep per night, while adults need between seven and nine hours each night. Older adults aged 65 years and above need seven to eight hours of sleep nightly.
Research also shows that teens and college students sleep less during weekdays and more on weekends to compensate for less sleep on weeknights. However, scientific evidence suggests that this approach is not erasing the damage linked with daily sleep deprivation. Even after sleeping more on the weekends, people reported struggling throughout the day and waking up with fatigue.
Home Remedies for Sleep Deprivation
What are effective natural strategies or home remedies for sleep deprivation? The following tips may help you get a better night’s sleep:
- Create a regular sleep routine. In other words, keep it consistent and go to bed and wake up at the same time each day.
- Keep your room dark and a bit cooler than the rest of the house. A cooler room can reduce your core body temperature, and this leads to sleepiness.
- Avoid eating two to three hours before heading to bed. A magnesium supplement before bed can also help you sleep.
- Daily exercise of 30 to 60 minutes can also promote better sleep.
- Avoid using electronics like your computer, tablet, or Smartphone at night since the bright screens can lead to alertness due to changes in your brain and eyes.
- Increase natural light exposure during the day since the body requires a pattern of light versus dark exposure for proper function. Try taking a walk in the morning and spending more time outdoors in general.
- Manage your stress daily with meditation, prayer, reading, yoga or other exercise, joining a social group, or using essential oils like lavender, bergamot, or chamomile oil.
Final Thoughts on Side Effects of Lack of Sleep
Sleep deprivation can lead to all sorts of health problems. We’ve noted that side effects of lack of sleep may include impaired immunity, an increased diabetes risk, respiratory problems, heart problems, digestive issues, an increased appetite, mood changes, memory failure, hallucinations, reduced libido, and an increased risk of accidents, especially while driving.
How can you prevent sleep deprivation? Aim for a minimum of seven hours of sleep per night. You will also want to reduce stress, get daily exercise, remove electronics from the bedroom, and keep a regular sleep schedule where you go to bed and wake up at the same time daily.
Article Sources (+)
Ali, T., et al., “Sleep, immunity and inflammation in gastrointestinal disorders,” World Journal of Gastroenterology, Dec. 2013; 19(48): 9231-9239, doi: 10.3748/wjg.v19.i48.9231.
Khanijow, V., et al., “Sleep Dysfunction and Gastrointestinal Diseases,” Gastroenterology & Hepatology, Dec. 2015; 11(12): 817-825, PMID: 27134599.
“What Happens to Your Body When You Don’t Get Enough Sleep,” Cleveland Clinic; https://health.clevelandclinic.org/happens-body-dont-get-enough-sleep/, last accessed October 1, 2018.