Most everyone feels great after a good night's sleep. But people tend to underestimate the negatives of not getting enough sleep.
The dangers of poor sleep go far beyond feeling groggy for a few hours. Medical experts at the University of Georgia remind adults that sleep isn't just a time filler or passive activity. Sleep restores our energy, fights off illness and fatigue by strengthening our immune system, and helps us think more clearly and creatively, according to Georgia's student health center blog.
The dangers of sleep debt
When you don't get enough sleep, the dangers are far-reaching, according to doctors at UGA.
Here are some of the consequences when you frequently do not sleep the recommended 6-10 hours of sleep each night:
- More illness, such as colds and flu, due to a lowered immune system. Sleep debt makes it harder to fight off infections, making people more prone to upper respiratory infections.
- Feeling more stressed out
- Increased weight gain and obesity, due to an increase in the hormone ghrelin, which is associated with a hunger for high-calorie foods
- Increased mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety
- Increased automobile accidents due to fatigue caused by "drowsy driving"
- Decreased performance in athletics and other activities that require coordination
The low sleep-Type 2 diabetes connection
Another serious danger of bad sleep is its link to developing Type 2 diabetes. According to the National Sleep Foundation, along with family medical history, eating habits and weight, sleep habits can play a role in the development of Type 2 diabetes. The NSF is a non-profit that promotes the benefits of sleep health. Experts at the organization note that the primary reason too little sleep increases the risk of Type 2 diabetes is that it throws your hormone levels out of whack.
As sleep debt mounts with ongoing sleep loss, your body releases less insulin (a hormone that regulates blood sugar) after you eat. At the same time, your sleep-deprived body secretes more stress hormones, including cortisol, to help you stay awake. This makes it harder for insulin to work properly. The result is too much glucose stays in the bloodstream, upping your risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
Such effects have been noted in people who get between four and a half and six hours of sleep per night. Other diabetes-sleep debt links include an increase in appetite from too little sleep and feeling tired and less inclined to exercise. These are problems, because sugary cravings can destroy blood sugar levels and regular exercise assists in both the weight management and blood sugar control that are so important in preventing and controlling Type 2 diabetes.
These effects of sleep deprivation can be experienced with getting between four-and-a-half to six hours of sleep per night. In particular, a decrease in slow-wave (or "deep") sleep—which is thought to be the most restorative stage of sleep —seems to play a major role in maintaining proper insulin sensitivity and blood sugar control.
Health risks are greattart sleeping more: your health is at risk
The body never adjusts to sleep deprivation; the symptoms just get worse and the risks more severe. The longer you go without sleep, the worse your performance becomes, according to Dr. Lawrence Epstein, chief medical officer for the Harvard-affiliated Sleep Health Centers, reported in Men's Fitness.
The effects of sleep deprivation accumulate instead of your body eventually adjusting to getting less sleep than you need, Epstein said. People do tend to deny that they're sleepy as they become more and more sleep deprived, but that's just because they no longer realize how lack of sleep is affecting their minds and bodies. "We are not good judges of how we're being affected by lack of sleep," Epstein said.
The only way to combat the symptoms of sleep debt is to take measures to get more sleep on a regular basis. Organizations like the National Sleep Foundation offer numerous approaches to combating insomnia or adding a few more hours of sleep each night.
In general, when you want to get more sleep on a regular basis, the quickest approach is to establish a sleep ritual and stick to it, according to the University Health Center at UGA.
The center describes a sleep ritual as a routine that helps the body and mind wind down in readiness for a solid night's sleep. It might include some of the following:
- Maintain a regular bed and wake time schedule, including not sleeping in more than one or two hours extra on the weekends.
- Establish a relaxing bedtime routine that might include a hot bath or listening to soothing music.
- Use your bedroom only for sleep and sex.
- Finish any snacks or meals at least 2-3 hours before the bedtime you set, and avoid caffeine after 3-4 hours before bed.
- Avoid nicotine and alcohol close to bedtime. Both can lead to poor sleep.