When we don’t get enough sleep on a regular basis, things can get off balance. It’s not unrealistic to say that if you have severe sleep deprivation, it may impact your health. It could even kill you.
Sleep, Health and Quality of Life
According to Matthew Walker, an expert on sleep in the field of neuroscience and psychology at the University of California at Berkeley, when your body doesn’t get enough sleep, it can shorten your life.
Walker is also the author of the book, “Why you Sleep.” For his take on sleep deprivation, view his video at the bottom of this page.
How could a lack of sleep effect your daily life? In this article, we will explore how sleep is interconnected to many different chronic diseases, illnesses and even accidents.
If you are a working adult, student in high school or college, a busy parent or new parent, you owe it to yourself to get some sleep.
In fact, we all do. It’s one of the single most important determinants of health. We must have sleep, and a lack of it sets us up for problems with our health and our lives.
How much sleep is enough?
As an adult, seven to nine hours of uninterrupted sleep is recommended. Children and adolescents may need longer hours of snoozing time.
Are you getting enough sleep? If not, it could affect your health. We will look at how a loss of sleep can put you at risk for many life-threatening events and conditions, a great reason to get your needed sleep.
What if you don’t get enough sleep?
If you think you don’t get enough sleep at night, see a sleep medicine specialist. The physician that you choose can arrange for you to have sleep studies and other necessary testing to get to the bottom of your disturbance.
What are the stages of sleep?
When we don’t sleep, we interrupt the cycle of sleep. There are two stages that occur during sleeping hours.
REM sleep stage
The first, known as REM, or rapid eye movement, is the deepest state of sleep. This is when the mid-brain and fore-brain produce intense activity during this time. Dreams occur during this stage.
There is a tendency for limbs to remain still, while eye muscle twitching diaphragmatic movements may occur.
Contrary to popular belief, once you get into REM, you do not stay there. Your body may cycle in and out of REM sleep several times any given night.
NREM sleep stage
The second stage of sleep is NREM, or Non-Rapid Eye Movement sleep. During the night, you will drift back and forth between the two stages of sleep many times. This stage is broken into three separate stages:
The three states are defined by brain electrical patterns in the brainwave itself. We will generally remain in NREM sleep for a larger percentage of our sleep cycle, with shorter periods of REM sleep.
Can you get a headache from a lack of sleep?
According to President David Dodick, MD, of the American Headache Society and a professor of neurology at the Phoenix, Arizona, Mayo clinic, migraines are often triggered by a loss of sleep. In fact, it’s one of the strongest triggers for migraine headaches.
Scientists don’t know much yet about the pathways that are responsible for the link between sleep and headaches.
One theory is that it occurs by way of the trigeminal nerve. While roads of neurons going in and out causing sort of traffic jam, the resulting migraine headache can be debilitating and keep you down for a day or more.
10 Ways loss of sleep can kill you
1. Decreased alertness and sleepiness can result in accidents
A decrease in your level of alertness and sleepiness during daytime hours may compromise your abilities, leading to an accident. Driving vehicles and operating heavy machinery may become a safety hazard to yourself and others, which in the worse circumstances could lead to death.
Other symptoms related to a lack of sleep can cause untoward effects that impact ability to operate machinery or perform a job. These include hallucinations and problems with memory and concentration.
Compare drowsiness to drunk driving, and they are similar. Knowing that you shouldn’t drink and drive, you should also not drive or operate heavy machinery when you’ve had little sleep. This places you at higher risk for an accident and death.
Motor vehicle accidents related to fatigue and falling asleep while behind the wheel are becoming more common, as our lives become busier. It’s often underestimated how many times this occurs.
Those in the transportation industry, including truck drivers, airline pilots and even medical residents, can all shown signs of sleep deprivation that have caused an increased risk for traffic accidents.
2. Obesity and the relationship to sleep deprivation
Obesity related to sleep disturbances and lack of energy leading to a sedentary lifestyle can lead to a myriad of chronic illnesses that can shorten life, including obesity.
When we don’t sleep, we can develop more cravings for foods that are not healthy for us. Impulses may be increased with sleep deprivation.
Losing sleep causes hormones to get off balance, such as cortisol, that are linked to weight gain, a higher body mass index (BMI) and obesity.
3. Losing sleep ups your cancer risk
Colon and breast cancers notably are linked to loss of sleep over time. People with disordered sleep patterns disrupted by shift work, for example, are shown to be at an increased risk for certain kinds of cancer.
In one study, women who worked shift work were 30 percent more likely to develop breast cancer. The research also showed that as few as three nights of shift work left the women at a higher risk.
Shift work has also been linked to cancer of the prostate in men.
Researchers have long suspected that disrupted sleep patterns increase the risk of developing cancers. When our internal circadian rhythm is off, or our biological clock, we are unable to perform many of our basic functions down to the cellular level.
4. The relationship of sleep and Alzheimer’s
When we sleep, our brain cleanses itself of a protein called beta-amyloid that builds up in our brains and has a direct correlation with the development of Alzheimer’s disease.
The build up of these proteins in your brain over time resulting from a lack of deep, or REM sleep, puts you at more risk for Alzheimer’s disease.
The National Institute of Health (NIH) study points to evidence that even one lost night’s sleep may increase beta-amyloid proteins. The hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease is amyloid plagues that result from a build-up of this protein in the brain.
The build-up of protein plaques in the brain leads to decreased neuron firing in the brain.
The same effect of plaque build-up has been shown in the brains of mice, with more studies needed on the relationship between sleep deprivation and Alzheimer’s needed in humans.
5. Heart disease and sleep
Many studies have duplicated results that a lack of sleep takes its toll on the heart muscle.
The longer you are made to stay awake, the further your blood pressure will rise, along with your heart rate. When compared with the blood pressure and heart rates of those who are getting eight hours of sleep per night, if you are sleep deprived, you have a higher risk for heart disease.
The heart disease risk biomarker of C-reactive protein is elevated in those who don’t regularly get enough sleep.
In one NIH study, it was found that we sleep about an hour and a half less per day than we did as a society 100 years ago.
The study showed a relationship between sleep deprivation and high blood pressure, CAD, or Coronary Artery Disease and even found a link with Diabetes Mellitus.
When we lack sleep, our sympathetic nervous system reacts by increasing activity. This raises heart rate and blood pressure. The study confirmed that there is a link between loss of sleep and the development of all three conditions.
Too much sleep, conversely sets us up for poor health as well, including Cerebral vascular Accident (CVA), or stroke.
6. Loss of sleep increases your risk for Type 2 Diabetes
Metabolism is disrupted when sleep is lost. This, in turn, increases your body’s insulin resistance according to several studies conducted by researchers in this area.
A NIH study showed findings that when sleep is chronically missed, individuals are more likely to develop Type 2 Diabetes. More studies are needed to study sleep disorders in relationship to Type 2 Diabetes.
7. Sleep and inflammation
Down to the molecular level, a loss of sleep reaches down to the cellular level. All the cells in our body function better with sleep.
Cells are better able to fight inflammation in our body when they are rested. Getting enough sleep may help prevent inflammation and explain why when people are tired, it can point to many different conditions related to inflammation, such as Multiple Sclerosis (MS), lupus, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and fibromyalgia, arthritis, heart disease, asthma and diabetes.
8. Sleep Apnea
Being a heavy snorer can often signal a condition known as sleep apnea. Sleep apnea, left untreated, can cause other problems over time, such as heart disease, myocardial infarction (heart attack), and it’s linked to weight gain.
Sleep apnea is a disorder of the sleep cycle that involves interruption of breathing during sleep. This occurs repeatedly during sleeping hours. Sometimes it can occur hundreds of times in a nighttime.
Over an extended period with sleep apnea, the heart muscles are strained due to a lack of oxygen. Not only the heart, but the brain and the body tissues are deprived of oxygen.
9. Genetics and sleep deprivation
Digging even deeper than the cellular level, we get to the actual DNA chain. Did you know that a lack of sleep can cause your genes to misbehave?
In 2013, a study found that disruption of genetic activity from sleep deprivation is actually tied to our overall health and wellness.
Participants in the study were allowed less than six hours sleep per night for one week. Genetic activity was noted to decrease, including responses to stress and immunity.
Genes on a circadian pattern that cycle from day to day stopped their functioning. Other genes picked up on the daily pattern.
This amounts to less sleep acting as a disruption to normal genetic activity, causing your genes to malfunction.
10. Your Immune system and sleep disruption
When we don’t sleep, it stresses our body and as a result, our immune system will not work properly. This means that wounds may not heal, and infection could set in, being around other people with illness could leave you with an unwanted cold or virus.
When sleep deprivation is prolonged, the defense that your immunity provides may be compromised. Vaccinations that you receive may also not provide the immunity they should for vaccine preventable diseases. This is all related to our genetics.
Ways to get more sleep
Forget counting sheep. There are many ways to get a good night’s sleep for your health and wellbeing.
The American Cancer Society offers tips to help you get to sleep on time and stay asleep:
- Avoid daytime napping
- Go to sleep and wake up at the same time daily
- Avoid caffeine and alcohol after 5 pm
- Stop smoking, avoid nicotine products altogether
- Exercise regularly and during the day (not within two to three hours of bedtime)
- Eat healthy meals at regular times, with several hours before bed allowed to digest
- Your sleep environment should be quiet, comfortable and dark
- Use a white noise app on your phone to calm and relax you
- Participate in reading, meditation, other relaxation techniques, or listening to music
- After 20 minutes of lying in bed with no sleep, find something calm to do until you feel sleepy
- See a doctor if you still can’t sleep
In summary, watch this video to see what happens when you do not get enough sleep:
I am a certified CDE and expert in Diabetes Self-Management Education Program, grew up in a small town in the Piedmont of NC. During my time at St. Andrews Presbyterian College, I developed a love of writing and obtained a BA in English. After obtaining my nursing degree, my first job out of school was on the vascular surgery floor, where I saw many people with diabetes lose their limbs together with many other medical problems that arise from poor health. I worked as an RN for 22 years in public health in South Carolina. In my spare time away from educating people about health and diabetes, I continue my passion by writing about them.