The Real Risk of Sleep Deprivation

The Real Risk of Sleep Deprivation
Not getting enough sleep has a bigger impact than just feeling tired throughout the day.

Sleep deprivation has the same effect on your immune system as physical stress or illness, which helps explain why lack of sleep has been shown to raise your risk of numerous chronic diseases. Sleep is also intricately tied to important hormone levels, including melatonin — an antioxidant with powerful anticancer activity — which is diminished by lack of sleep, and to brain detoxification and rejuvenation, which only occur during deep sleep.

Cutting just one hour of sleep a night increases the expression of genes associated with inflammation, immune excitability, diabetes, cancer risk and stress.1 A single night of poor sleep has also been shown to impair your physical movements and mental focus to a degree comparable to having a blood alcohol level of 0.10 percent.2 In other words, lack of sleep can result in a level of impairment on par with someone who’s drunk.

Sleeping well is also important for maintaining emotional balance. Fatigue compromises your brain’s ability to regulate emotions, making you more prone to crankiness, anxiety and unwarranted emotional outbursts.3 Small adjustments to your daily routine and sleeping area can go a long way to ensure uninterrupted, restful sleep and, thereby, better health.

One of the worst things you can do is to reach for a sleeping pill. Research shows these drugs do not work and can have serious side effects. One analysis found that popular sleeping pills reduced the average time it takes to fall asleep by a mere 13 minutes compared to placebo, while increasing total sleep time by 11 minutes. Such results are typical.

Meanwhile, research,5 shows people who take sleeping pills have a 35 percent higher risk for certain cancers and are nearly four times as likely to die from any cause as nonusers. These are significant risks for mere minutes of additional sleep.

What Science Tells Us About the Ramifications of Sleep Deprivation

According to an analysis6 of available research by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the Sleep Research Society, the weight of the evidence suggests adults need somewhere between seven and nine hours of sleep each night for optimal health, with the Goldilocks’ Zone being right around eight hours.

They also determined that consistently sleeping less than six hours a night increases your risk for a wide range of psychological and physical effects. In addition to exacerbating any chronic ailment you may already have, poor sleep or lack of sleep also directly contributes to: 7

Increased risk of car accidents. In 2013, drowsy drivers caused 72,000 car accidents in which 800 Americans were killed; 44,000 were injured8Increased risk of cardiovascular disease. African-American have a higher risk of heart disease than Caucasians and as much as 50 percent of this racial difference has been linked to blacks getting less sleep9
Premature birth; sleep deprived mothers have double the risk of delivering more than six weeks early than mothers who sleep well10Reduced ability to learn or remember and lowered academic performance. Even infants have improved recall after napping, suggesting sleep plays a role in solidifying memories11
Reduced ability to perform tasks and reduced productivity. According to recent research, workers sleeping less than six hours per night costs the U.S. $411 billion annually in lost productivity12Reduced creativity at work or in other activities
Increased risk of obesity and Type 2 diabetesIncreased susceptibility to stomach ulcers
Increased risk of cancerIncreased risk of high blood pressure
Increased risk of osteoporosisIncreased accidents at work
Reduced athletic performancePremature aging by interfering with growth hormone production, normally released by your pituitary gland during deep sleep
Increased risk of depression and anxiety.13 In one trial, 87 percent of depressed patients who resolved their insomnia had major improvements to their depression, with symptoms disappearing after eight weeksIncreased risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease14
Decreased immune functionIncreased risk of dying from any cause

Lack of Sleep Raises Your Risk of Obesity

A number of studies have demonstrated that lack of sleep can play a significant role in obesity, insulin resistance and Type 2 diabetes — all of which are at epidemic levels not only in the U.S. but around the world. The link between sleep deprivation and weight gain is explained by the fact that sleep affects hunger-related hormones. Studies show poor sleep increases ghrelin, which results in increased hunger, while simultaneously inhibiting leptin, the hormone that signals your brain when you’re “full.”

This combination results in increased hunger and food cravings, especially for carbohydrates. According to one recent study,15,16,17getting one extra hour of sleep per night may reduce your waist size by one-third of an inch. Compared to people who averaged just under six hours of sleep per night, those who slept an average of 8.45 hours per night (plus or minus 40 minutes) were roughly 7 pounds lighter on average, and had a waist circumference averaging 1.6 inches smaller.

Another study published in the International Journal of Obesity18 found that infants who sleep less eat more, which places them at increased risk of future obesity and related health problems. Infants who, at the age of 16 months, slept less than 10 hours per day ate an average of 10 percent more calories than those who slept for at least 13 hours daily.19

Sleep Deprivation Ups Diabetes Risk in Both Young and Old

Recent research20 also confirms that sleep is an important factor in children’s risk for diabetes. A British team evaluated more than 4,500 children aged between 9 and 10 years of varying ethnic backgrounds. On average, their parents reported the children slept between eight and 12 hours, with the average sleep time being 10 hours.

Previous studies have shown children need more sleep than adults and this study confirms that view. Even at eight hours a night, children were at increased risk of obesity and insulin resistance when compared to those who slept the most.

According to senior author Christopher Owen, a professor of epidemiology at St. George’s University of London, for children, more sleep is better, and there’s really no upper threshold. He told The New York Times,21 “Increasing sleep is a very simple, low-cost intervention. We should be doing our utmost to make sure that children sleep for an adequate amount of time.”

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