Hitting the sack for too few hours can lead to some serious issues.

By Claire Gillespie
Updated July 29, 2020
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“How did you sleep last night?” It's a question we ask each other all the time, and it’s a more important one than we may realize. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the Sleep Research Society recommend that adults age 18 to 60 years get at least seven hours of sleep per night for optimal health and well-being. 

But we’re a sleep-deprived nation; according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study published in 2016, more than a third of U.S. adults don’t get enough sleep on a regular basis. 

While sleep deprivation isn’t a specific disease and is usually caused by another illness or life circumstances, it’s a serious issue that can lead to a range of poor health outcomes. “Sleep deprivation is getting fewer hours of sleep than is generally needed for your health and well-being,” Beth A. Malow, MD, a professor in the department of neurology and pediatrics and director of the sleep disorders division at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, tells Health

Sleep deprivation may be down to your lifestyle, such as staying up too late or waking up too early, due to job or family demands, or a sleep disorder like insomnia, sleep apnea, narcolepsy, or restless legs syndrome. Sleep deprivation is also common with depression, schizophrenia, chronic pain syndrome, cancer, heart disease, stroke, Parkinson’s disease, and Alzheimer’s disease. Here's how the issue can impact your overall health, and how can get your sleep schedule back on track. 

What are the signs of sleep deprivation?

Someone who is sleep deprived has sleep that is inadequate in quantity or quality. “The person may seem inattentive or moody, or be prone to fall asleep in sedentary situations,” Brandon Peters-Mathews, MD, a sleep medicine doctor at Virginia Mason Medical Center, Seattle, and author of Sleep Through Insomnia, tells Health. Other minor signs of sleep deprivation include drowsiness, inability to concentrate, impaired memory, reduced physical strength, and diminished ability to fight off infections.

If sleep deprivation isn’t addressed, symptoms can become more serious, and include increased risk for depression and mental illness, increased risk for stroke, hallucinations, and severe mood swings. “Someone who is extremely sleep deprived may make more mistakes and errors at work, be at risk for accidents, or even fall asleep while driving,” Dr. Peters-Mathews says.

How does sleep deprivation impact overall health? 

Ongoing sleep deprivation can have serious, long-term health consequences. “A lack of sleep affects the normal function of the brain and contributes to both cognitive and mood disturbances,” Dr. Peters-Mathews says. “It affects short-term memory, concentration, problem solving, and reaction times. It exacerbates anxiety, depression, and irritability." He adds that it may also lead to hormonal changes, like insulin resistance, elevated blood sugar levels, or even weight regulation. Not getting enough sleep may also eventually worsen pain and, "if severe enough, it may cause visual hallucinations or paranoia," Dr. Peters-Mathews says.

Sleep deprivation may also lead to hormonal changes, like insulin resistance, elevated blood sugar levels, or even weight regulation, Dr. Peters-Mathews says. Many studies have also identified a link between sleep deprivation and abnormal metabolic function. A case-control study published in the Oman Medical Journal in 2016 found that habitual sleep deprivation is associated with type 2 diabetes, basically because it throws hormone levels out of whack. Ongoing sleep loss results in less insulin (a hormone that regulates blood sugar) being released in the body after you eat. Instead, the body discharges more cortisol and other stress hormones to help you stay awake. However, these hormones make it harder for insulin to do the job it was designed for, which means too much glucose stays in the bloodstream.

A study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published in 2016 found that teenagers who were sleep deprived could display different and risky behavior, such as drinking, texting while driving, and not following common safety protocols, like wearing a bicycle helmet or a seat belt. Sleep-deprived teens were also more likely to struggle with obesity, migraines, depression, and substance abuse. 

How can you avoid sleep deprivation? 

The best way to avoid sleep deprivation is to get the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep per night. “It’s important to recognize the importance of sufficient sleep,” Dr. Malow says. But for some people, that’s easier said than done. 

The key is to protect your time in bed, Dr. Rodriguez says. “Don’t allow work or hobbies to reduce time available for sleep,” he says. “Put aside work and spend the last one to two hours before your anticipated bedtime engaged in relaxing activities—read a book, watch a movie or a favorite TV show, listen to relaxing music, or take a bath.”

Other simple strategies to tackle mild sleep deprivation include exercising for at least 20 to 30 minutes each day and at least five to six hours before going to bed, avoiding substances that contain caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol, all of which can disrupt your regular sleep patterns, and sticking to a consistent sleep schedule, meaning you go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. Keep your bedroom at a reasonable temperature (The National Sleep Foundation recommends somewhere around 65 degrees Fahrenheit) because a bedroom that is too hot or too cold can disrupt sleep. In some cases, a short daytime nap may help to recover from recently lost sleep. 

But if the problem persists, it’s important to seek evaluation by a sleep doctor to identify—or rule out—a more serious underlying sleep disorder, such as insomnia, narcolepsy, or sleep apnea.

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