Name two things in life that you never seem to get enough of.
If you chose money and sleep as your top two things, you’re not alone.
According to a survey from the National Geographic Channel, only 27% of Americans actually get 8 hours of sleep per night.
That puts nearly three quarters of us consistently in one stage or another of sleep deprivation.
Sleep deprivation isn’t just a convenient excuse when you get a case of the yawns. It’s a genuine health condition that affects your body and your mind in significant ways. So before you set an extra alarm on your phone and stay up that extra hour playing video games or out with friends, take a minute and read on.
That extra sleep you're giving up is more costly than you think...
Your Brain without Sleep
How often do you find yourself forgetting things you’re positive you should know? What about concentration? How about emotional stability? Have you been feeling especially depressed lately?
All of these things are affected by your sleeping habits.
Minor sleep deprivation over time will sneak up on you. Most people who don’t get sufficient sleep are unaware of exactly how it is affecting their lives.
The first thing to go is mental acuity. When you’re sleepy, your thought processes slow down and your ability to grasp complex ideas is reduced. It’s more difficult to focus on tasks at hand, concentration becomes a major effort, and you’re more easily confused.
You may easily spot these symptoms late at night, but if you deal with chronic sleep deprivation, the same difficulties cloud your normal waking hours as a thin haze you can never seem to be rid of.
The next domino to topple is memory. Research suggests that our minds create stronger short-term memories during sleep. Think of sleep time as an opportunity for your mind to clear out the clutter of the previous day and prepare you for the next. When this process is interrupted, memories are less likely to “stick”.
This is worsened when you’re unable to fully concentrate, as noted above. One of the results of this combination is a reduced capability for learning new things. This may be especially obvious in high school and college students, but adults are not immune. You may be fighting an uphill battle simply because you’re accustomed to it.
Slowed reaction time comes next. This is where things really enter the danger-zone. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that a minimum of 100,000 auto crashes per year are caused by driver fatigue. Other polls and surveys put that number closer to 20% of all traffic accidents annually.
Obviously your reaction time affects a lot more than your driving safety. This is why proper sleep is a major point of concern in fields such as emergency services and the military.
Mood and mental health are affected too. When you don’t get enough sleep, your emotional wellness is at risk. Sleep deprived individuals have a significantly harder time coping with stress, are less likely to exercise regularly and engage in fewer leisure activities.
As sleep deprivation becomes a pattern, we can become accustomed to the impairment. The results vary from relationship and employment problems to extended bouts of depression.
Your Body without Sleep
The physical effects of reduced sleep on your body can be scarier than the mental ones.
Heart health tops the scary scale. Studies have shown that nearly a quarter of people who sleep less than 6 hours per night have some form of heart disease or cardiovascular problem.
If you’re over 45 and getting less than 6 hours of sleep per night, your risk of heart attack nearly doubles.
Weight gain may be a surprising item on the list, but research has shown that sleeping less than 5 hours per night does increase your likelihood of gaining weight.
Research has shown that the body has a reduced reward response late at night when we’re tired. This means it takes more stimulus to achieve the same response. That’s the driving force behind midnight snacking – and when you’re sleep deprived, the effect extends much further into the day. Studies have shown that sleep deprived individuals are significantly more likely to indulge in high-calorie foods.
Adding insult to injury, if you habitually get less than 5 hours of sleep, your stomach will produce roughly 15% less leptin – one of the hormones responsible for making you feel full and regulating fat storage.
On top of everything else, if you’re sleep deprived and feel fatigued, you’re significantly less likely to perform any form of exercise to burn off all those extra calories.
Add it all together, and it’s no surprise that Body Mass Indexes for poor sleepers average 3.6% higher.
Blood Pressure is affected too. While the causal relationships are not clear, research indicates that sleeping 5 hours or less per night is linked with higher risk of developing high blood pressure.
One potential cause for both things is obstructive sleep apnea – a condition where breathing periodically and repeatedly stops during the night.
Another potential factor is your reduced ability to cope with daily stress. As your stress levels increase, your body goes into fight-or-flight mode, slowing your metabolism, constricting your circulatory system and pumping out hormones that can cause serious damage to your body over a prolonged period.
High blood pressure is directly related to risk of both heart disease and stroke. If you’re over 45 and getting less than 6 hours of sleep per night, your risk of stroke is roughly doubled.
Sex drive, Diabetes and wrinkles round out the list. Men and women both exhibit lower sex drive when sleep deprived. There may be many reasons for this including lethargy, lack of energy and reduced testosterone production.
The body’s reaction to sleep deprivation can resemble insulin resistance, a precursor to diabetes. A Yale University Medical School study has also shown that men who habitually sleep less than 6 hours per night are twice as likely to develop diabetes during their lifetimes.
Chronic sleep loss also contributes to your appearance. As mentioned before, insufficient sleep increases stress. One of the hormones your body produces when stressed is Cortisol. Cortisol contributes to breaking down the collagen in your skin. This reduces smoothness and elasticity. In short: Lack of sleep promotes wrinkles.
Your Life without Sleep
Harvard Medical School experts claim that if you chronically get less than 5 hours of sleep per night, you are 15% more likely to die.
At any age.
For any reason.
Other studies have shown similar results – the Whitehall II Study for example, showed that in 10,000 subjects over a 20 year period, those who got 5 or less hours of sleep per night were nearly twice as likely to die from any cause.
While the effects of sleep deprivation can be measured in mortality rates, it is clear there is far more to the issue.
If there is a single, powerful take-away here, it is this: Your quality of life is powerfully affected by your sleeping habits.
Sleep is not simply a “luxury” to indulge in when time allows. Rather, it is an absolute necessity in order to get the most out of the hours you spend awake.
Next time you’re tempted to stay up that extra hour or two, consider the costs. There are a lot more of them than you might have realized.
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