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6 Scary Dangers of Sleep Deprivation

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Are you a morning lark - hopping out of bed all bright eyed and bushy tailed, ready to take on the day? Or do you consider yourself to be a night owl - finding your pure rhythm and flow in the dark of the night? Regardless of your instinctive sleep pattern, there's one thing we all require to be productive, healthy, and thriving: a good night's sleep. 

Why do I need sleep?

During the depths of dreamland, your body is resting, restoring, and rebooting. Your body regenerates and heals itself, including making more white blood cells to improve your immunity. Your brain creates new connections while you soak in what came your way, during the day. 

When you get poor sleep, your body and mind won’t function well, in fact, in some cases it can even lead to death [1]. The National Sleep Foundation recommends seven to nine hours of sleep per night for healthy adults [2]. But this can vary depending on the state of your health and your personal biology. 

Sleep deprivation versus insomnia  

We've all had those times when we toss and turn and wake up feeling groggy, anxious, and sleepy. Sleep deprivation is caused by persistent lack of sleep or poor quality sleep. It typically involves situations that restrict sleep, whether self imposed or from the environment. Pulling all nighters for work or school, watching a late night movie, or being interrupted by the neighbor’s baby, for example. Getting less than seven of those sweet zzz’s on a regular basis can eventually lead to dangerous health consequences that negatively impact your body and mind.

Sleep deprivation differs from insomnia in the sense that insomnia is the inability to get adequate and/or quality sleep, even when there is the opportunity to sleep [3]. Meaning you may not have control over it. It can either be a struggle to fall asleep and/or stay asleep. Examples include laying in bed glancing at the clock every few minutes or staring at the ceiling not being able to fall asleep. Insomnia is sometimes caused by sleep disorders (narcolepsy, sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome) or other health conditions. 

Am I getting enough sleep?

In order to fully test your sleep quality, contact your medical practitioner for a sleep study; especially if you think you may have a sleep condition. You can also start by asking yourself these sleep assessment questions, created by Matthew Walker, scientist, professor, sleep expert, and author of Why We Sleep:

  • After waking up in the morning, could you fall back asleep around ten or eleven?
    • If yes, you are likely not getting enough sleep and/or good quality sleep
  • Can you function well without caffeine before noon? 
    • If no, you are most likely self-medicating for chronic sleep deprivation
  • If you didn’t have an alarm, would you sleep past that time?
    • If yes, you need more sleep than you’re giving yourself
  • Do you find yourself rereading what you just read? (this article included)
    • If yes, this is often a sign of a fatigued sleep deprived brain
  • Do you forget what color the last few traffic lights were while driving?
    • Small distractions may be the cause but so can lack of sleep 

Sleep cycle and circadian rhythm

Two factors that determine when you're awake and when you sleep (your sleep pattern) are your twenty-hour hour circadian rhythm and sleep pressure. 

Circadian rhythm

You have your very own internal 24-hour clock, housed deep within your brain, called the circadian rhythm. This clock creates a cyclical, day-night rhythm that makes you feel tired or alert at certain times of the day. This natural rhythm signals to every region of your brain and every organ in your body, including your digestive tract, temperature, and immune function. 

Melatonin is a sleep-related hormone that’s produced at night. The rise of it begins soon after dusk. Melatonin itself doesn’t generate sleep, but rather it acts like a signal, telling your brain and body that it’s time to go nite nite. It naturally decreases through the night, so when you wake up you’re ready to take on the day. 

Melatonin supplements can be particularly helpful if you have trouble falling asleep. Think of it as a voice singing your brain a lullaby. It can also be very helpful for reducing symptoms of jet lag. If you're traveling across timezones, aim to take a melatonin supplement a couple hours before the nighttime of the location you’re arriving. 

Sleep pressure

Adenosine is a nucleoside (building block of DNA) chemical that builds up in your brain. It increases during the time you’re awake. The longer you’re awake, the more adenosine accumulates. The rising levels develop your desire to sleep, called sleep pressure. This is what makes you feel sleepy and ready to go to bed. This happens after most of you have been awake for twelve to sixteen hours. 

Caffeine 

Caffeine, the drug used and loved by many, is a chemical found in coffee, tea, coke, mate, chocolate, and other products. It’s commonly used to improve mental alertness. Caffeine works by muting the effects of adenosine. Almost like someone stealing your chair from under your bum, caffeine comes and "sits" in your adenosine brain receptor. As a result of blocking this receptor, caffeine decreases the sleepy feeling that comes from adenosine. 

Dangers of sleep deprivation 

Your sweet dreams lay the foundation for a healthy and productive day ahead. If you chronically miss out on sleep, you may be compromising your health to the extent of shortening your lifespan. These scary effects of sleep deprivation and health problems should sound the alarm, and make you set an alarm -- it's time to get some sleep!

Your stress skyrockets

Sleep loss signals sympathetic nervous system activity (fight or flight mode) [4]. When you get less sleep than you need, it causes elevations in catecholamine levels (norepinephrine and epinephrine). These are neurotransmitters that are released when you’re physically or emotionally stressed. They make you breath faster and increase your blood pressure. As a result you feel panicked, anxious, and on full alert mode.  

You’re in ongoing pain 

A six month study of adolescents in Finnish communities found that sleep problems were strongly associated with headaches and abdominal pain [5]. The increased pain caused the adolescents to increase substance use, making matters worse. Without adequate sleep, you're body won't heal itself properly, making you feel discomfort during the day. 

You gain weight - not where you want it

When you don't get adequate sleep, you're at risk for high levels of unhealthy metabolic factors such as increased cortisol, blood lipids, and glucose (blood sugar) [6]. Chronically high blood sugar and cortisol can lead to weight gain, particularly in the belly region. When these indicators are high, it also leads to intense food (particularly sweets and processed food) cravings - making matters worse. 

Sleep also affects your hunger hormones: leptin and ghrelin. Leptin signals to your brain when you’ve had enough to eat and ghrelin is considered to be the hunger hormone, making you want to eat more. Without enough sleep, your brain reduces leptin and raises ghrelin, making you feel like a hungry, hungry hippo. 

You’re down in the dumps 

A review of clinical studies explored the link between sleep disruptions and the development of depression [7]. Sleep disruptions (being interrupted or waking up throughout the night) proved to be more detrimental than delaying bedtime (going to bed late). Meaning if you get woken up by noise or toss and turn, you're more likely to feel low. Insufficient sleep is also associated with high burnout levels [8]. 

Your brain is drained 

Sleep disruption alters cognition and performance in many areas including attention, executive function, emotional reactivity, memory, decision making, and judgement. Difficulty sleeping has been linked to slow or impaired information processing including motor control (including driving cars) and decreased reaction time [9]. In fact, drowsy driving can have similar effects as drinking alcohol, accounting for seven percent of all motor vehicle crashes in the U.S [10]. 

You’re prone to chronic disease 

In the short-term, side effects of lack of sleep include a poor immune system, making you more likely to catch a cold or have trouble recovering from illness [11]. It also can make your reaction time slow and increase food cravings. But a lack of good quality sleep in the long term is the hard hitter. Not getting an appropriate amount of sleep is linked to cardiovascular disease or heart disease, heart attack, type 2 diabetes, obesity, cancer and even death [12]. 

Sleep hygiene 

Now that you know the life-threatening reasons “why” you need sleep, we’ll show you how you can improve and get more of it. Here are five sleep hygiene tips and sleep habits that will improve your sleep quality and quantity. Incorporate them into your routine tonight:

  • Dim the lights: Bright lights send signals to your brain that it’s daytime. Turn off the TV well before bed, turn off lights, keep blinds closed or consider darker curtains. Dimming the lights about an hours before bed can also help activate melatonin. 
  • Shut off the screens: The blue light from your cell phone, computer, and TV actually prevent your body from producing melatonin. Shut off devices at least an hour or two before bed, don’t sleep with the TV on, and resist the urge to check your phone if you wake up at night. 
  • Stick to a schedule: According to sleep expert, Matthew Walker, one of the most important things you can do is keep your body on a consistent schedule. When you go to bed around the same time and wake up around the same time, your body adapts and produces the right chemicals in expectation of appropriate wake and bed time. 
  • Eat earlier: A heavy meal before bed can make it hard to fall asleep because your body temperature stays elevated. It also makes it difficult on your digestion, leading to stomach upset and heartburn. Try to finish eating at least two hours before bed. 
  • Avoid stimulants: sugary foods and alcohol can cause your blood sugar to spike, giving you energy. In fact, alcohol can disrupt your sleep cycle. Caffeine is a stimulant that prevents sleepies, so avoid it at least five to six hours before bedtime. Know your body -- if you’re caffeine sensitive, you may want to consider cutting it out even sooner. 

Still can’t catch those zzz’s? Read more here: Can’t Sleep? How to Fall Asleep Fast and Naturally 

 

 

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2864873/
  2. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S2352721815000157
  3. https://www.medscape.org/viewarticle/501335
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18222099
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22350133
  6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15564359
  7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25646723
  8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18374744
  9. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5449130/
  10. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/09/180918082041.htm
  11. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3256323/
  12. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5449130/

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