What Happens to Your Body When You Don’t Get Enough Sleep

New report lists sleep needs by age group

What Happens to Your Body When You Don't Get Enough Sleep

If you eat well and exercise regularly but don’t get at least seven hours of sleep every night, you may undermine all your other efforts.

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Sleep disorders expert Harneet Walia, MD, says it’s important to focus on getting enough sleep, something many of us lack. “First and foremost, we need to make sleep a priority,” she says. “We always recommend a good diet and exercise to everyone. Along the same lines, we need to focus on sleep as well.”

How much sleep do you actually need?

Everyone feels better after a good night’s rest.  But now, thanks to a report from the National Sleep Foundation, you can aim for a targeted sleep number tailored to your age.

The foundation based its report on two years of research. Published in a recent issue of the foundation’s journal Sleep Health, the report updates previous sleep recommendations. It breaks them into nine age-specific categories with a range for each, which allows for individual differences:

  • Older adults, 65+ years: 7-8 hours
  • Adults, 26-64 years: 7-9 hours
  • Young adults, 18-25 years: 7-9 hours
  • Teenagers, 14-17 years: 8-10 hours
  • School-age children, 6-13 years: 9-11 hours
  • Preschool children, 3-5 years: 10-13 hours
  • Toddlers, 1-2 years: 11-14 hours
  • Infants, 4-11 months: 12-15 hours
  • Newborns, 0-3 months: 14-17 hours

Dr. Walia says there’s evidence that genetic, behavioral and environmental factors help determine how much sleep an individual needs for the best health and daily performance.

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But a minimum of seven hours of sleep is a step in the right direction to improve your health, she says.

What happens when you don’t get enough sleep?

Your doctor urges you to get enough sleep for good reason, Dr. Walia says.  Shorting yourself on shut-eye has a negative impact on your health in many ways:

Short-term problems can include:

  • Lack of alertness: Even missing as little as 1.5 hours can have an impact, research shows.
  • Impaired memory: Lack of sleep can affect your ability to think and to remember and process information.
  • Relationship stress: It can make you feel moody, and you can become more likely to have conflicts with others.
  • Quality of life: You may become less likely to participate in normal daily activities or to exercise.
  • Greater likelihood for car accidents: Drowsy driving accounts for thousands of crashes, injuries and fatalities each year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

If you continue to operate without enough sleep, you may see more long-term and serious health problems. Some of the most serious potential problems associated with chronic sleep deprivation are high blood pressure, diabetes, heart attack, heart failure or stroke. Other potential problems include obesity, depression and lower sex drive.

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Chronic sleep deprivation can even affect your appearance.  Over time, it can lead to premature wrinkling and dark circles under the eyes. Also, research links a lack of sleep to an increase of the stress hormone cortisol in the body. Cortisol can break down collagen, the protein that keeps skin smooth.

Make time for downtime

“In our society, nowadays, people aren’t getting enough sleep. They put sleep so far down on their priority list because there are so many other things to do – family, personal and work life,” Dr. Walia says. “These are challenges, but if people understand how important adequate sleep is, it makes a huge difference.”