Not getting enough sleep drains your mental capabilities and risks your physical health. Science has linked poor sleep with numerous health problems, from a weakened immune system to weight gain. If you’ve ever spent a night tossing and turning, you already know how you’ll feel the next day: cranky, tired, and out of sorts. Still, missing out on the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep nightly does more than make you feel grumpy and tired. The long-term consequences of sleep deprivation are real.

What causes sleep deprivation?

Sleep deprivation is caused by a constant lack of sleep or diminished sleep conditions. Sleeping for less than seven hours can lead to health consequences that affect your body. A hidden sleep disorder may also cause this. Your body needs sleep like it needs food and air to function at its best. During sleep, your body heals itself, restoring its chemical balance. Your brain creates new thought connections and helps memory preservation. Without enough sleep, your body systems and brain won’t function properly, dramatically lowering your quality of life.

A review of studies found that too little sleep at night increases the risk of early death. Noticeable signs of sleep deprivation include frequent yawning, excessive sleepiness, daytime fatigue, and irritability. Stimulants, like caffeine, aren’t enough to override your body’s intense need for sleep. These can worsen sleep deprivation by making it more challenging to fall asleep at night. In turn, this may lead to a cycle of nighttime insomnia and daytime caffeine consumption to fight the tiredness caused by the lost hours of sleep.

Behind the scenes, chronic sleep deprivation can inhibit your body’s internal systems, causing more than just the typical symptoms and signs of sleep deprivation. Here are some ways that a lack of sleep can affect your body’s systems.

It distrubs your central nervous system.

The central nervous system is your body’s main information highway. Sleep is necessary to keep everything functioning correctly. However, chronic insomnia can disrupt how your body typically processes and sends information. When we’re sleeping, pathways between the nerve cells, or neurons, are formed in your brain, which help you remember new information you’ve learned. Sleep deprivation leaves your brain exhausted, causing it not to perform its duties well. It may also be more challenging to focus or learn new things.

The signals your body sends may also be late, increasing your risk for accidents and decreasing your coordination. Sleep deprivation can also negatively affect your emotional state and mental abilities. You might feel more impatient and prone to mood swings. It can also compromise your creativity and decision-making. If sleep deprivation continues, you could start having hallucinations, hearing or seeing things that aren’t there.

A lack of sleep can also cause mania in people who have bipolar mood disorder. Other psychological risks include anxiety, depression, impulsive behavior, suicidal thoughts, and paranoia. During the day, you may also end up experiencing microsleep. You’ll fall asleep for several seconds without realizing it in these episodes. Microsleep is typically out of your control and can be extremely hazardous, especially if you’re driving. It can also make you more prone to injuries if you’re operating heavy machinery at work and have a microsleep episode.

Your body can't fight off illnesses.

When you’re sleeping, your immune system produces infection-fighting, protective substances like cytokines and antibodies, using these substances to fight foreign invaders like viruses and bacteria. Specific cytokines also help you sleep, making your immune system more efficient to fight your body against illness. A lack of sleep stops your immune system from building up its forces. If you don’t get enough sleep, your body may be unable to fight off invaders, and it might take you longer to recover from sickness. Long-term sleep deprivation also raises your risk for chronic illnesses like heart disease and diabetes mellitus.

It can worsen respiratory diseases.

The relationship between the respiratory system and sleep goes two ways. A nocturnal breathing disorder called obstructive sleep apnea, or OSA, can interrupt your sleep, lowering your sleep quality. When you wake up during the night, this can cause sleep deprivation, leaving you more vulnerable to respiratory infections like the common flu and cold. Sleep deprivation can also make current respiratory diseases worsen, like chronic lung illness.

It may cause you to become overweight.

Along with not exercising and overeating, a lack of sleep is another risk cause for becoming obese and overweight. Sleep affects the levels of two hormones, ghrelin and leptin, which control feelings of fullness and hunger. Leptin tells your brain to stop eating. Without getting enough sleep, your brain reduces leptin and increases ghrelin, an appetite stimulant. The flux of these hormones could explain why someone may overeat later in the night or nighttime snacking.

A lack of sleep can also make you feel too exhausted to exercise. Eventually, reduced physical activity can make you gain weight because you’re not building muscle mass or burning enough calories. Lacking sleep also causes your body to release less insulin after eating. Insulin also helps reduce your blood sugar level. Sleep deprivation also lowers the body’s glucose tolerance and is linked with insulin resistance. These disruptions can lead to obesity and diabetes.

The most basic form of sleep deprivation treatment is getting enough sleep, typically seven to nine hours every night. This is typically easier said than done, especially if you’ve been deprived of sleep for several weeks or longer. After this, you may need help from a sleep specialist or your doctor who, if needed, can diagnose and treat any possible sleep disorders.

Sleep disorders make it challenging to get quality sleep at night and may increase your risk for sleep deprivation. Some of the most common sleep disorders include narcolepsy, sleep apnea, insomnia, restless leg syndrome, or circadian rhythm disorders. To diagnose these conditions, your doctor may order a sleep study traditionally conducted at a formal sleep center. However, there are options to measure your sleep quality at home. If you’re diagnosed with a sleep disorder, you may be given a device to keep your airway open at night or medication to help fight the disorder so you can get a better night’s sleep regularly.

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