The Worst News About Sleep Deprivation Effects

September 08, 2017 |


You feel it as you stumble out of bed, get yourself to work, get through the day. Your body, your brain, feel the physical effects of sleep deprivation. “This can’t be healthy,” you mumble. And it certainly isn’t healthy. Research shows sleep deprivation effects on the brain, including psychological effects.

Effects of Sleep Deprivation

Sleeping is basic to human existence, just like breathing, eating and drinking. Sleep is vital to the foundation of health and well-being at every age through your lifetime.

If you don’t get between seven and nine hours of sleep at night, your body feels the side effects of sleep deprivation. Physical health, mental health, and productivity are negatively affected. Chronic health problems including heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, kidney disease and stroke are associated with chronic sleep deprivation.

Your risk of death is higher (often from drowsy driving) if you don’t get sufficient sleep.

Sleep deficiency has been linked to increased risk of injury in adults, teens, and children. In older adults, sleep deficiency might cause falls and broken bones.

There’s a myth that people can train their bodies to require little sleep and suffer no adverse effects. However, research shows that getting sufficient quality sleep is critical to our overall physical and mental health, quality of life and safety. (1

Obesity & Physical Effects of Sleep Deprivation

Research shows that worldwide, the incidence of obesity has doubled since 1980. In 2008, 1 in 10 adults was obese, with the rate higher in women than men.

In tandem with this obesity epidemic, we’ve seen another trend in sleep deprivation. Scientific evidence shows that short sleep duration and poor sleep quality are now recognized as risk factors for obesity. Sleep is a critical element in the balance of multiple hormone processes involved in obesity. The part of the brain that controls sleep also plays a role in appetite and metabolism.

Sleep loss has been shown to alter peptides that regulate appetite -- specifically ghrelin, which stimulates hunger, and leptin, which suppresses appetite. When we sleep less, we have less leptin and higher levels of ghrelin. Sleep loss also stimulates cravings for high-fat, high-carbohydrate foods.

One study found that when people slept less than six hours a day, they were at a 30 percent higher risk of gaining weight compared to others who got an adequate 7 to 9 hours of sleep. (2)

Another study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that people ate an average of nearly 300 fewer calories per day when they were well-rested. A solid night of sleep may provide extra willpower to resist those cookies or chips. (3)

Sleep is the ‘most sedentary activity,' yet may be the only one that protects from weight gain, according to one researcher. (4)

Sleep Deprivation’s Effects on the Heart

In 2007, the Whitehall II study in Great Britain was the first to show the effects of sleep deprivation on heart disease. Researchers followed 10,308 white-collar British civil servants for up to 17 years. All were aged 35-55 when the study started. This study showed that too little sleep increased the risk of heart disease-related death. (5)

Three recent studies demonstrated that sleep deprivation affects inflammation, oxidative stress, clot formation and atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries). All of these mechanisms link sleep deprivation to heart disease, coronary artery disease, high blood pressure (hypertension), arrhythmia, obesity, and diabetes – all very harmful consequences. (6) (7) (8)

Sleep Deprivation and Diabetes

Just as inadequate sleep has been linked to obesity and heart disease, it’s also linked with risk for type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome, often called pre-diabetes.

Research shows that sleep deprivation upsets glucose metabolism, the body’s process for regulating blood sugar and processing sugar into energy. This disruption also decreases the body’s insulin sensitivity and glucose tolerance, which contributes to unhealthy high blood sugar levels – leading to diabetes. (9)

Sleep Deprivation May Cause Cancer

There is evidence that sleep deprivation can lead to cancer – colon cancer, as one study found. Researchers at Case Comprehensive Cancer Center at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland studied 1240 men and women who came to their hospital for a routine colonoscopy. More people with polyps reported sleeping much less than six hours, and few slept more than seven.

The results showed that sleep deprivation increased their risk similar to that of other high-risk groups, such as someone with a close relative diagnosed with colon cancer or who ate lots of red meat. (10)

Sleep Deprivation and the Brain

Sleep is essential to your well-being - your mental health and quality of life. You feel better during the day when you’ve had plenty of sleep. During sleep, your body works to support healthy function of your brain. Sleep promotes the growth and development of children and teens.

Ongoing sleep deficiency can raise your risk for car crashes due to drowsy driving. Sleep deprivation affects your ability to react and how well you think, learn, work and get along with other people.

The cumulative cost of sleep deprivation takes a toll on our functioning during the day, whether we realize it or not, according to a study published in the journal Sleep. Researchers found that lapses in alertness were directly related to the amount of sleep deprivation. They also found that getting six hours or less sleep most nights – considered relatively moderate sleep deprivation - can seriously affect cognitive function, and yet the study volunteers were mostly unaware of the deficits. (11)

Adequate sleep is crucial to your brain's ability to learn and remember. During sleep, your brain processes the day’s new information and forms memories. Sleep deprivation impairs your ability to learn and retain new information efficiently.

For a memory to be created, three functions must occur:

  1. Acquisition – experiencing or learning something new
  2. Consolidation -- the memory is stabilized in the brain
  3. Recall – accessing the memory in the future

Researchers believe sleep is necessary for the memory to be consolidated. Unless you have a sufficient sleep, your brain will have a harder time absorbing and recalling the new information.

Studies show that sleep also affects judgment as well as physical reflexes and fine motor skills. (12)

Sleep Loss Affects On-The-Job Performance

A study published in 1982 reported on injuries among 1502 industry workers. Employees who complained about their sleep, in particular, those complaining about excessive daytime sleepiness, had significantly more work accidents, particularly repeated work accidents and considerably more sick days per work accident. (13)

Night shift workers, who are inherently more sleep-deprived, have more cognitive difficulties on the job.  A 2016 study of night shift intensive care unit (ICU) physicians reported that the relationship between tiredness and the risk of medical errors is now commonly accepted. In their study, researchers examined the impact of fatigue on doctor's performance during night shift work.

night shift work

All cognitive abilities were worse after a night shift, including working memory, the speed of processing information, reasoning and cognitive flexibility. After a two-hour nap, only cognitive flexibility appeared to be restored. The other three cognitive skills were disrupted regardless how much napping time they grabbed during the night shift. (14)

Psychological Effects Of Sleep Deprivation

Insomnia, depression, and anxiety have been linked to sleep deprivation. One study found people who had higher levels of depression and anxiety had more nightly awakenings. Women were more prone to depression and anxiety. African Americans were nearly five times more likely to have serious depression and anxiety compared with other groups. (15)

Sleep Deprivation Triggers Migraines

Ask anyone who suffers from migraines – sleep deprivation can definitely trigger the painful headaches. Inadequate sleep can also cause occasional migraines to become frequent. Recent research has helped explain the mechanisms between headache pain and sleep.

Researchers at Missouri State University reported that rats deprived of REM (deep) sleep showed changes in key proteins that trigger and suppress chronic pain. Sleep-deprived rats had higher levels of proteins that stimulate the nervous system and lower levels of proteins that quiet the system.

When stress is high, as when we’re sleep-deprived, those arousal proteins are at high levels and trigger the migraine pain. Also, sleep deprivation caused higher levels of proteins p38 and PKA, which control trigeminal nerves that are key in migraines. When there was a lack of REM sleep, there was a trigger in chronic pain. (16)

Sleep Deprivation Accelerates Alzheimer's Disease

While researchers have found that sleep deprivation is connected with Alzheimer's disease, they have not known exactly how the two are linked. A rat study has shown that sleep-deprived rats had impaired cognitive function – as well as increased levels of AB peptides, a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease.

In fact, the sleep-deprived rats had significantly higher levels of activity in the B-site amyloid proteins. This seemed to accelerate the progression of Alzheimer’s. Researchers say this finding “has important implications for the diagnosis and prevention” of Alzheimer’s. (17)

How To Avoid Sleep Deprivation

The difficulty in falling asleep – and staying asleep – are the hallmarks of insomnia. You may be tempted to take sleep medications, but the long-term health effects are a concern. Researchers tend to support integrative approaches to treating insomnia.

Mind-body therapies such as mindfulness meditation, yoga, and tai chi are well-regarded. There is also considerable research showing the dietary supplements and acupuncture can be helpful. (18)

Restful Mind Via Mindfulness Meditation

If you’re fighting side effects of sleep deprivation and insomnia, consider learning more about meditation. The research supporting this practice is compelling. One group of researchers reviewed 47 clinical trials involving 3515 participants, finding that eight weeks of mindfulness meditation were helpful in improving anxiety, depression, and pain – which significantly improved sleep. (19)

A study of adults over age 75 found that eight weeks of mindfulness-based therapy helped reduce their stress and chronic insomnia. They also saw improvements in sleep quality, anxiety and depression compared to the group that didn’t practice mindfulness-based stress reduction.  (20)

Mindfulness meditation appears to be a viable treatment option for adults with chronic insomnia and could provide an alternative to traditional treatments for insomnia, writes another group of researchers. (21)

Melatonin Can Promote Good Sleep

Quieting your mind and body is critical because all this “noise” upsets your body’s ability to produce melatonin, a hormone the body produces. Melatonin regulates the body's circadian rhythm. When the sun goes down, your brain begins producing melatonin. This increase in melatonin hormones triggers the feeling of sleepiness and keeps you sleepy for about 12 hours. As the sun rises, the body reduces production of melatonin, and the levels in your blood decrease considerably.

When noise disrupts your internal circadian rhythm, your body produces less melatonin hormone.

Rhythm desynchronization is another name for this disruption and is often caused by shift work, night work and some psychiatric diseases. The internal clock is no longer working in harmony with the real-world clock.

Melatonin, which is secreted by the pineal gland, is considered the setpoint of the clock. Both daylight and melatonin are useful in treating sleep circadian disorders like insomnia. That’s when a melatonin supplement can help -- resetting your internal circadian rhythm and putting an end to effects of sleep deprivation. (22)

Talk To Your Doctor About Sleep Deprivation

If you have a sleep problem, don’t ignore it. Talk about:

  • How often you have trouble sleeping
  • How long the problem has bothered you
  • When you go to bed and get up on workdays and days off
  • Your sleep pattern - how long it takes to fall asleep, how often you wake up, whether you fall back asleep
  • If you snore loudly and/or wake up gasping for air
  • If you feel refreshed in the morning or not
  • How tired you feel during the day
  • How often you doze off during the day
  • If you feel drowsy while driving

Your doctor needs to know about your personal habits and daily routine. For example, do you exercise? What is your work schedule like? Do you use tobacco, caffeine, alcohol, or any medications (including over-the-counter medicines)?

Before you see your doctor, keep notes about your sleep issues for a few weeks. Take note when you go to bed, wake up and take naps. Be honest with yourself. This is a process to help you get a better quality of life.

Make a note about how much sleep you get every night. How rested and alert do you feel in the morning? How sleepy do you feel during the day? This information will help your doctor advise you on beating the side effects of sleep deprivation. (23)