The Scary Effects of Sleep Deprivation You Weren’t Aware Of

August 26, 2017 |


The effects of sleep deprivation go deeper than irritability. Research shows that even one night of disrupted sleep can have a significant impact on your health by activating your immune system and increasing the risk of certain conditions. It even increases your risk of dying from any disease (1).

But the majority of Americans aren’t purposely staying awake all night long. Genetic factors along with environmental triggers such as stress, poor diet, and lack of exercise are to blame. Undiagnosed sleep disorders have become an epidemic among adults worldwide. Here’s the scary truth about what happens to your body when you don’t sleep.

What Causes Sleep Loss?

While the average person needs to sleep between seven and nine hours a day, many people struggle to get this. But it’s not because they don’t want to. Sleep is a complicated process, and many factors can disrupt it.

Your sleep cycle is determined by two main processes: a circadian process and a homeostatic process (2). The circadian process is your internal sleep pacemaker. It determines when you fall asleep and when you wake up. The circadian cycle is also responsible for releasing hormones and controlling body temperature to help get you ready for sleep. The homeostatic process is affected by your sleep and wake cycles. In other words, the longer you stay awake, the more the need for sleep increases. These two processes work together to affect your sleep needs.

Studies on sleep deprivation indicate that lack of sleep interferes with the part of your brain that is responsible for cognitive function (2). There are several theories to suggest how sleep impacts the brain. Most of them show that sleep deprivation has selective effects on different structures of the brain and their functions, which affects general attention and alertness.

According to the “sleep-based neuropsychological perspective,” your cognitive function depends on the area of your brain known as the prefrontal cortex, which controls thought patterns, language, and your ability to think outside the box (2). Additionally, some theories suggest that the effects of sleep deprivation are different for everyone. In other words, sleep loss may affect you differently than it affects someone else. You may find it difficult to carry on a conversation or stay awake at your desk because you’re so tired while a coworker who got the same amount of sleep seems perfectly fine.

Certain people are more at risk of developing sleep problems than others. Research shows that obesity, being male, and increasing age enhances your risk of developing obstructive sleep apnea syndrome (3). People with diabetes and cardiovascular disease are also more likely to develop sleeping problems (3). Older females are more likely to develop insomnia. In fact, one study found that women were twice as likely as men to develop the condition (3). Other risk factors include stressful lifestyles, medical conditions, psychiatric disorders, medications, work shifts, and having a family history of sleeping disorders.

Environmental factors, such as excessive drinking, smoking or drug use, can lead to sleep deprivation. Exposure to stress, poor diet, and lack of exercise can also keep you awake at night. Your lifestyle habits and the way you respond to stress are the most manageable causes of sleep deprivation. While you cannot change your age or gender, you can develop a healthy lifestyle routine that improves your ability to sleep, such as eating lots of fruits and vegetables, exercising regularly, and developing a bedtime routine.

lack of sleep

Sleep Deprivation Symptoms

Have you ever woken up from what you thought was a full night’s sleep only to experience symptoms of sleep loss? Sometimes sleep deprivation doesn’t hit us until later in the day. Even then, we might not notice that we’re not as sharp or on top of our game as we usually are.

Although the symptoms of sleep deprivation may seem obvious, some people experience side effects that seem like they have nothing to do with sleep. Here are some symptoms of sleep deprivation you may not be aware of:

  • Mood changes
  • Hallucinations
  • Pain or worsening of pain conditions
  • Memory loss or trouble concentrating
  • Obesity or weight gain
  • Decreased alertness
  • Language problems, including difficulty finding the right words to say during a conversation
  • Depression or anxiety
  • Alcohol use
  • Disorganization and the inability to plan or multitask
  • Impaired judgement
  • Paranoia or being over emotional
  • Frequent upper respiratory infections
  • Constant hunger or frequent food cravings
  • Impulsiveness
  • Decreased motor skills, such as tripping or bumping into walls
  • Vision and skin problems
  • Falling asleep while driving or at work
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes

Sleep Deprivation Effects

Everyone knows what it feels like after a night of missed sleep. You feel groggy and irritable. But sleep deprivation is far worse for you and those around you than just dealing with a bad attitude. It worsens just about any health condition you can think of and increases your risk of many serious health issues. Here are some scary effects of sleep deprivation that affect your mental and physical health.

1. Driving while tired is as dangerous as drunk driving

Sleep deprivation has been shown to impair your working memory and attention, making it harder for you to make easy decisions. It also decreases your response time and impairs your motor skills, which is why you’re more likely to get into a car accident when you’re sleepy. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, driving while tired kills more than 1,500 people and causes at least 100,000 automotive accidents every year (4).  

One study found that performance was equivalent to or worse than a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) level of 0.05 percent in subjects who went 17 to 19 hours without sleep. In fact, missing one night of sleep makes you about as unreliable as a drunk person. Research shows that going 24 hours without sleep makes you 4.5 times more likely to sign a false confession (1).

During longer periods of missed sleep, performance is equivalent to a BAC of 0.1 percent (5). Most states set the legal limit of alcohol intake to 0.08, meaning that skipping one night of sleep makes you as dangerous as someone who is eligible for a DUI.

Sleep deprived people also have trouble deciphering between memories that actually happened and those that they made up in their head. In other words, being sleep deprived makes it harder for you to determine the source of your memories.

2. Sleep deprivation activates the immune system, alters your DNA and increases the risk of disease.

In addition to psychological effects, sleep deprivation puts you at risk for certain diseases. One study found that missing even one night’s sleep created a similar effect on the immune system as physical stress (6). Researchers kept a group of men awake for 29 hours straight. Results showed an increase in white blood cells called granulocytes, which are usually released when there is an infection, an allergic reaction or asthma in the body. Although the study was small, it determined that missing sleep is more detrimental to physical health than once thought.

Sleep is an important part of controlling inflammation, which is the underlying cause of many diseases. According to a 2010 study, loss of sleep increases inflammatory mediators that increase the risk of metabolic diseases, such as heart failure, coronary heart disease, and diabetes (7). In addition to initiating the immune response, inflammatory markers are dangerous because they may negatively affect many homeostatic functions, such as blood pressure, metabolism, and insulin resistance (7).

Several studies suggest that people who don’t sleep well are especially prone to developing type two diabetes. One study showed that women who slept less than five hours a night increased their risk of developing type two diabetes by 34 percent (8). Another study found that subjects who only slept 4.5 hours at night lowered their insulin sensitivity by 16 percent and their fat cell's insulin sensitivity dropped by 30 percent. Results showed that these numbers rivaled those with diabetes or obesity (1).

Your body’s cells need sleep to regenerate and power up after a long day. According to Doctor Matthew Brady, associate professor of Medicine at the University of Chicago, “This is the equivalent of metabolically aging someone 10 to 20 years just from four nights of partial sleep restriction. Fat cells need sleep, and when they don't get enough sleep, they become metabolically groggy."

Chronic sleep deprivation has also been shown to disrupt your DNA sequence. One study revealed that getting fewer than six hours of sleep each night for one week affected 700 different genes (9). According to the study, the genes affected by sleep loss are also linked to your metabolic and immune functioning.

It only takes one night for you to begin to experience changes. When you don’t sleep, it enhances your stress response and inflammation levels, which increases your risk of disease. Your genetic sequence plays a significant role in determining your overall health, such as whether or not you’ll develop cancer one day. Your genes even play a role in determining how long you’ll live.

Sleeping is an important part of keeping your mental health intact. Research shows that when you sleep, your brain cells shrink as much as 60 percent to allow them to remove waste efficiency (1). When you don’t sleep well, your brain cannot detox itself and your risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease increases (1). Sleep is also needed to regulate hormone levels, especially melatonin, which plays a role in preventing a broad range of cancer cells. Melatonin also helps initiate the self-destruction of cancer cells (1). Your melatonin levels suffer as a result of not getting enough sleep.

3. Poor sleep causes you to fall asleep unexpectedly during the daytime.

Sleep loss makes you prone to experiencing “microsleeps” or brief sessions of sleep that last around 30 seconds. These usually occur during the day after a night of poor sleep. The scary thing about microsleeps is that they essentially cause the person to become blind. Even if your eyes are open, your brain is not receiving the information it needs. Therefore, the image you’re looking is not getting through to your brain. You can force yourself out of a microsleep to stay awake, but without proper sleep, you will fall into another one (10).

4. Teenagers who don’t sleep well are more likely to do drugs.

One study showed that teenagers who don’t sleep well are more likely to do drugs (8). Additionally, a teenagers sleeping habits can also predict how likely their friends are to do drugs. Researchers found that teens who got less than seven hours of sleep at night were 19 percent more likely to do drugs (11).

Friends of the sleep deprived teens were 29 percent more likely to adopt the same sleep habits, which also increased their risk of doing drugs. The study found that teenagers who did not sleep well had more cognitive, emotional, and behavioral problems in school. It was noted that these changes could enhance a teenagers likelihood of developing a substance problem later in life.

5. You become overly emotional and physically weak.

Your emotional balance is off when you don’t sleep, which makes you irritable and more likely to have outbursts. Research shows that sleep deprivation may cause you to overreact to neural events or events that normally wouldn’t get you so worked up.

After two nights without sleep, you start to become physically weaker. Oxygen distribution decreases and so does your athletic performance, meaning you are more likely to trip, fall over steps, or crash a car.

Other effects of sleep deprivation include (1):

  • Increases blood pressure, which enhances the risk of heart disease
  • Worsens stomach ulcers or makes you more likely to get them
  • Makes the following conditions worse: Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, kidney disease, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, digestive disorders, and constipation
  • Causes cognitive and behavioral problems in children and teenagers
  • Alters gene expression to increase the effects and likelihood of diabetes, stress, inflammation, and cancer
  • Increases cortisol levels, which is a stress hormone that halts new brain cell production
  • Causes premature aging by disrupting the production of human growth hormone
  • Enhances the risk of death from all diseases
  • Causes depression and aggravates chronic pain conditions