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Sleep Disorders

Updated 02 October 2018

How lack of sleep affects your body

Sleep deprivation is a common problem that can lead to a number of chronic health conditions.

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Missing out on the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep a night can have long-term effects on your mental and physical well-being.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, lack of sleep is a public health problem and a contributing factor to many chronic health conditions that include diabetes, heart disease, obesity and obstructive sleep apnoea. 

Effects on your body:

Endocrine system: Hormone production is dependent on sleep. The production of testosterone requires at least three hours of uninterrupted sleep, according to the Discipline of Medicine and Freemasons Foundation Centre for Men's Health at the University of Adelaide in South Australia.

An interruption of this process can affect growth hormone production. These hormones help build muscle mass and tissues. Both sleep and exercise help the pituitary gland to release growth hormone.

Cardiovascular system: Sleep helps with maintaining a healthy heart and blood vessels, blood pressure, blood sugar and inflammation levels. It also plays a vital role in healing and repairing the heart and blood vessels. A report published in the European Journal of Preventative Cardiology suggests that insomnia is linked to an increased risk of heart attack and stroke.

Digestive system: Like overeating and not exercising, lack of sleep is another risk factor that contributes to weight gain and obesity. Leptin and ghrelin are the two hormones that control feelings of hunger and fullness, both of which can be affected by sleep, according to PLOS Medicine.

The hormone leptin alerts your brain that you’ve had enough to eat, but without enough sleep, your brain produces less leptin and raises ghrelin levels. The fluctuation of these hormones, could be the reason for your overeating late at night.

Sleep deprivation prompts the body to release higher levels of insulin, which promotes fat storage and increases your risk for type 2 diabetes and obesity, the Department of Health Science of the University of Chicago suggests.

Respiratory system: According to a US National Library of Medicine article, obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA) is when your breathing pauses during sleep. This happens repeatedly during sleep, which means that your body may not get enough oxygen. 

Losing out on sleep throughout the night contributes to sleep deficit, leaving you more vulnerable to respiratory infections like colds and flu. Sleep deprivation can also worsen existing respiratory infections like chronic lung disease. 

Immune system: The immune system and sleep influence each other. Sleep is important for producing cytokines. These substances are used to fight bacteria and viruses. Cytokines also help one sleep, giving your body the energy to combat disease. Researchers from the University of Hafiz Hayat in Pakistan report that if you suffer from sleep deprivation, your immune system fails to build up resources against these foreign elements. 

Central nervous system: During sleep, neurons in your brain help you process new information. With sleep deprivation your brain is left exhausted, unable to perform its duties, affecting your concentration span and your memory, according to an article from the University of Pennsylvania, USA. Emotions and mental abilities are also negatively affected by sleep deprivation, compromising decision making, creativity and triggering mood swings. 

Short-term problems caused by sleep deprivation:

  • Lack of alertness
  • Impaired memory
  • Reduced quality of life
  • Increased likelihood of causing accidents

Long-term effects of sleep deprivation:

The occasional poor night's sleep is not a serious problem in itself, but recurring sleep deprivation can have a serious effect on your health, causing serious health implications like high blood pressure, diabetes, heart attack, heart failure or stroke. Sleep deprivation could potentially also affect your sex drive, and cause depression and obesity.

Paying off sleep debt

Compensating for lost hours of sleep is not that difficult when you make an effort to get the required hours of sleep plus an additional hour per night. Once you've restructured your sleeping patterns and caught up those lost hours, you’ll start feeling refreshed and full of life again.

Image credit: iStock

 

Ask the Expert

Sleep disorders expert

Dr Alison Bentley is a general practitioner who has consulted in sleep medicine and sleep disorders, in both adults and children of all ages, for almost 30 years. She also researches and publishes on a number of sleep-related topics both in formal research journals and lay publications including as editor of Sleep Matters, an educational newsletter on sleep disorders for doctors.

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