The long-term health risks of regular sleep deprivation

Lack of sleep can have an immediate effect on how you feel and perform. Just one night of disrupted sleep can leave you feeling out of sorts, sluggish, moody, or unable to perform at your best.

As worrying as these short-term symptoms undoubtedly are, long-term sleep deprivation can be even more severe.

Most experts agree that adults need 7-9 hours of sleep per night. However, it’s estimated that one-third of the population is getting by on fewer than six hours of sleep per night. Work, social, and familial demands can mean that sleep is often viewed as a luxury, but the reality is that too little sleep can have a detrimental effect on your health.

Here are the primary long-term risks of regular sleep deprivation.

1. High blood pressure and hypertension

Too little sleep can increase your stress levels, and high levels of stress can lead to high blood pressure and hypertension. Often known as silent killers, high blood pressure and hypertension are asymptomatic. This means they show no outward signs. The only way to diagnose high blood pressure is to have it tested. Because of this, avoidance is the best policy.

High blood pressure puts unwanted strain on your heart and circulatory system. Untreated high blood pressure can affect every part of your body, including your kidneys, eyes, and reproductive organs. Sleep helps your body regulate the hormones that are responsible for stress, lowering your blood pressure in the process.

2. Heart attack and stroke

Too little sleep not only increases your risk of developing high blood pressure and hypertension. It also increases inflammation (swelling and reddening) within the entire circulatory system. This is thought to increase the risk of coronary heart disease, heart attack, and stroke. Too little sleep also makes the formation of dangerous and potentially fatal blood clots more likely.

3. Weight gain and obesity 

The less sleep you get, the more likely you are to be overweight. Too little sleep increases hunger, reduces your metabolism, and degrades the motivation required to eat healthily and exercise regularly. In addition, to increase energy levels, people who are sleep deprived are more likely to overeat.

Being overweight is not just an issue of aesthetics; it affects almost every aspect of your health, including your lifespan.

4. Diabetes

Too little sleep can affect how your body processes the food you eat. Not getting enough sleep increases glucose intolerance and reduces insulin sensitivity. This can lead to elevated levels of blood glucose, a precursor for metabolic syndrome, and type 2 diabetes. High levels of blood sugar can have a detrimental effect all around your body, including the kidneys, eyes, skin, and the urinary, circulatory, and nervous systems.

5. Anxiety and depression

Long-term sleep deprivation is linked to depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues. People are sleeping less than ever, and there is a rise in mental health problems. It is unlikely this is coincidental.

A tired brain has a lower tolerance for things like stress, worry, and anxiety. Even simple obstacles can be hard to overcome when you are too tired to think straight. Getting more sleep gives the brain some much-needed downtime, during which it can rest, reset, and get busy producing the hormones your brain needs to be happy and healthy, namely melatonin and serotonin.

Well-rested people often report less stress and anxiety and increased mental and emotional wellbeing.

6. Immune system function

Your immune system protects your body from illness. Like every other system in your body, it needs time to rest and recover if it is to function at its best. Too little sleep decreases your antibody response to illnesses. This could lead to more frequent, lengthier, and more serious bouts of sickness.

There is a reason that, when you are ill, your need for sleep often increases. While you are sleeping, your body has the time and energy it needs to fight off illnesses.

7. Memory loss and brain function

A little age-related memory loss is very normal. Most people find that their memory decreases gradually over time. However, sleep plays an essential part in brain health and memory function, not least turning short-term memories into lasting long-term memories.

Lack of sleep could mean that age-related memory decline is more noticeable and comes on sooner. It can also affect things like problem-solving, organizational skills, and decision making.

Losing some brainpower as you age is only to be expected, but if it becomes a significant problem, it could prevent you from living a fulfilling, independent life.

8. All-cause mortality

Not getting enough sleep could potentially shorten your life. Not only are you more prone to serious illnesses such as heart disease and diabetes, but you are also more likely to suffer a serious accident. Sleep deprivation can affect your judgment and your reaction times in much the same way as alcohol can. Accidents while driving and operating machinery are much more likely if you are sleep deprived.

Summary

Most people feel the effects of too little sleep the very next day. These are usually short-term effects that are easy to shrug off. Chronic sleep deprivation can have a much more significant impact and can harm your long-term health. The effects also tend to be cumulative; the longer you are sleep deprived, the more dangerous they become.

Getting more sleep is not always easy, especially if there are lots of demands on your energy and time. However, sleeping more can help reduce your risk of developing some very serious and otherwise avoidable illnesses, so your efforts will be rewarded.

References:

1. PubMed: Relationship between Duration of Sleep and Hypertension in Adults: A Meta-Analysis

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4543249/

2. PubMed: Extent and Health Consequences of Chronic Sleep Loss and Sleep Disorders

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK19961/

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