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June 6, 2019 • read
Lack of sleep — the true side effects
The effects of lack of sleep can be felt almost immediately. We’ve all heard that car accidents increase the day after the spring forward time change — it’s true. So if one hour less of sleep can make that much of a difference to our driving ability, what else can it do?
The side effects of sleep deprivation
According to sleep therapist Aaron Arkin, the effects of sleep deprivation on the brain are widespread. “Daytime performance deficits are obvious: irritability rates go up, concentration declines, workplace accidents increase. All of this leads to absenteeism at work. Lately, I’ve also been hearing a lot about ‘presenteeism,’ which is when you’re at work, but unable to perform.”
It’s not just our professional lives that suffer. Over time, the health effects of lack of sleep really add up. Cumulative sleep deprivation increases our risk of developing hypertension, diabetes, obesity, depression, heart attack, and stroke. In general, our chances of developing chronic health issues increase, as lack of sleep weakens the immune system over time.
Weird physical symptoms of sleep deprivation
Our bodies work on internal clocks called “circadian rhythms,” which is why we feel tired at night and refreshed in the morning (at least in theory). These rhythms also control when different hormones are released, so throwing off our bodies’ internal clock messes with more than just our mood. In fact, just one night of sleep deprivation decreases the production of leptin, a hormone which suppresses appetite.
Disruption to the sleep/wake pattern also messes with the relationship between our brain and our gut. Research shows that our digestive system is thrown off more quickly by lack of sleep than our brain — leading the brain to send signals to our stomach at the wrong time. These factors explain why shift work often correlates with an increased risk of obesity and diabetes, and why many shift workers complain of digestive issues. This means that we end up both hungrier and worse at processing the food we’re likely bingeing on.
The psychological effects of sleep deprivation
While the long-term physical symptoms get a lot of coverage, the emotional and mental effects of sleep deprivation can be just as debilitating. One of the most immediate effects lack of sleep has is on mood. Not getting enough shut-eye messes with our ability to regulate our emotions and increases our irritability. This is why you find yourself snapping at your partner after a bad night, or crying in your cubicle over something minor at work. With regular sleep deprivation you accumulate sleep debt, leading to more pronounced effects.
Lack of sleep and depression often go hand-in-hand. In fact, many mental illnesses correlate with difficulty sleeping. Those with bipolar disorder, for example, often experience trouble sleeping, which in turn can exacerbate symptoms of their illness.
The effects of lack of sleep on your brain and body
The effects of sleep loss are varied, but some of the short and long term effects include:
- impaired decision making abilities
- slowed reaction time
- lowered concentration
- increased irritability
- impaired immunological functioning
What is sleep debt?
Sleep debt is what it sounds like — the amount of sleep we “owe” our body after a night of not getting enough. If you should be sleeping between seven to nine hours a night but you only get six, you’ve accumulated an hour of sleep debt. Repeat that pattern all week, and your debt balloons to a full night’s worth of sleep. Luckily, you can help to counterbalance that by getting a good night’s sleep until you’re fully rested again.
It’s important not to go overboard in the opposite direction, though, as too much sleep has its own perils. Regularly getting more than nine hours of sleep a night, puts you at higher risk for both dementia and Alzheimer’s. Too much sleep has also been linked to breast cancer — although the same research suggests this can also result from too little sleep (though less often). So while we all need more sleep from time to time, the sweet spot for most adults is six to nine hours a night. Check out our piece on the importance of sleep to see how much you should be getting.
Treatment for lack of sleep
While sleep difficulties are quite common, there are some signs when it might be time to seek professional help. Arkin recommends using the “rule of three” when deciding: “If you’re having trouble sleeping three nights a week and it’s been going on for about three weeks, then it might be time to start thinking about a professional.”
Arkin adds, that while sleep disorders have only really been studied for the last 50 years, it seems that both insomnia and sleep apnea, have a hereditary component. So if you’re experiencing symptoms and know that a close family member has struggled with either of these difficulties, it’s worth looking into getting help.
If you’re on the fence about speaking to a professional but still feel you need help with your sleep, there are a few straightforward tips you can try. Though simple, the first one can be pretty hard: stay away from screens for an hour before bedtime. Our phones emit light that cues our bodies into thinking it’s daytime — jacking us up instead of winding us down. So put the phone down, that text or work email can wait until tomorrow.
Another quick trick is to make sure you’re cutting out caffeine by at least three o’clock in the afternoon. Some of us are even more sensitive, making noon a more realistic cutoff point. Instead of your 2pm coffee, try a brisk walk outside or drink a glass of water and do some pushups. You might find the rush of endorphins just as refreshing and it’ll help you sleep better too.
Our hectic lives often mean that the first thing to end up on the backburner is a proper night’s sleep. Even if we avoid getting into a car accident, lack of sleep does have real consequences. Lowered life satisfaction and weakened interpersonal relationships are just two of the outcomes insomnia can engender. And that’s without even mentioning the health effects. So stay tuned for the next instalment in our sleep series as we lay out more simple tricks for getting a better night’s sleep.