September 26, 2022

10 Ways Sleep Deprivation Affects Your Health

High stress and forgetfulness are just two of the symptoms of losing sleep

Illustration depicting a woman looking sluggish sitting at her desk

70 million Americans are sleep deprived. But sleep isn’t a luxury, it’s a necessity.

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And being sleep-deprived shouldn’t be a badge of honor. The truth is, those hours of lost sleep add up to a bigger health deficit than you may realize, says sleep medicine specialist Nancy Foldvary-Schaefer, DO, MS.

“We need sleep so we can restore nutrients, replenish the spirit and refresh the mind,” Dr. Foldvary-Schaefer says. “Hidden health hazards accumulate during periods of sleeplessness, and they can’t be covered up with concealer or reversed with caffeine.”

Plus, sleep deprivation can have even worse effects on kids and their development. A lack of sleep in children and teens can cause behavior problems, impaired learning, poor concentration and decreased school performance.

Depending on your age, an average person may need up to nine hours of sleep a night, so be sure not to skimp on it and put your health at risk. Dr. Foldvary-Schaefer shares 10 ways sleep deprivation is harmful to your health.

How does lack of sleep impact your health?

Beyond a groggy feeling in the morning and sleeping past your alarm, sleep deprivation touches many parts of your body and mind. Everything from your cardiovascular system to your immune system can be affected by not getting your solid seven to eight hours each night.

Here are some ways that sleep deprivation can affect your overall health:

Constant feeling of tiredness

Finding your batteries depleted by the early afternoon? This is a clear sign of lack of sleep. And no, even a cup of coffee isn’t going to cure this. Sleep deprivation causes fatigue, low energy and excessive sleepiness throughout the day. This can affect your ability to complete day-to-day tasks, do things you love and take care of others.

Changes in mood

It’s no secret that lack of sleep makes you grumpy — your mood is the first thing to go if you’re sleep-deprived. But this isn’t one of those moods you can just shake off. When you’re not running on enough sleep, it can cause you to feel easily irritated, emotional and quick-tempered.

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Increased forgetfulness

Wait, where did I put my keys? Suddenly, your brain is running a blank on the most routine things. Your ability to remember and react to things is one way that your brain is affected by a lack of sleep. If you’re losing sleep, so is your brain.

Sleep loss can also cause neurological disturbances, including:

  • Blurred vision.
  • Memory lapse.
  • Poor reaction time.
  • Drooping eyelids.

“Sleep deprivation over the lifespan also increases the risk of cognitive impairment and dementia. Sleep helps clear neurotoxins from the brain that can lead to Alzheimer’s disease,” explains Dr. Foldvary-Schaefer.

Poor balance and coordination

If you’re stumbling through the day with less than seven hours of sleep under your belt, chances are you can start to feel a little drowsy. This drowsiness and lightheadedness can throw off your balance, putting you at risk for accidents, falls and injuries.

Higher risk of getting sick

Your immune system has an important job — and it needs you to get plenty of rest so it can keep running smoothly.

If you’re burning the candle at both ends, your immune system can weaken over time. Especially after consecutive days of not getting a good amount of sleep, you may start to become more susceptible to certain illnesses. Plus, as lack of sleep affects your immune system’s ability to fight against foreign illnesses, it may take you longer to recover from things like the cold or flu.

Risk of heart disease

Another side effect of sleep deprivation is poor heart health. A 2010 study found that hypertension (high blood pressure) was associated with a lack of sleep in certain individuals. An earlier research study also found that women who slept less than seven hours per night were more likely to suffer coronary events than women who got eight hours of ZZZs nightly.

Plus, untreated sleep apnea is associated with hypertension, cardiac arrhythmias and stroke.

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You might develop prediabetes

Your blood sugar may suffer from loss of sleep, too. Sleep deprivation can cause impaired glucose tolerance or higher than normal blood sugar levels.

Weight gain

It’s common for you to feel hungrier (especially for sweets and snacks) because of sleep deprivation. Why? Research shows that lack of sleep can alter key hormone levels (ghrelin, leptin and cortisol) in your body.

High stress levels

Feeling like you’re always on the edge? Unsurprisingly, losing sleep affects your stress levels as well. Lack of sleep can cause elevated cortisol (or “stress hormone”) levels. On the other hand, a good night’s sleep naturally reduces cortisol levels in your body.

May cause issues to your thyroid or hormones

In order for your body to properly produce hormones (through your endocrine system), it needs to get plenty or rest. Sleep deprivation can cause abnormal thyroid function and growth hormone secretion (specifically for kids and young adults).

Prioritize getting good sleep

With so many ways sleep can impact your health, it’s easy to see why getting enough rest each night should be a top priority. Learn more about how much sleep you need based on your age, plus some simple tips to sleep better.

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