5 Surprising Ways Sleep Deprivation May Hurt You

HomeFood & Fitness5 Surprising Ways Sleep Deprivation May Hurt You
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At your last checkup did your doctor ask, “How is your sleep?” If your doctor didn’t ask about your shut-eye, he or she should have. In recent decades, a body of worldwide research has emerged linking chronic sleep problems to many different conditions, not limited to the “usual suspects” — impaired reaction time or judgment. And merely falling asleep isn’t enough. You have to stay asleep, too, for a recommended total of seven to nine hours per night. The studies mentioned below may represent the first step to unlocking preventive therapies and treatments for the following hidden effects of sleep deprivation.

Sleep disorders can create several unexpected health problems. © Marcos Mesa Sam Wordley/Shutterstock.com

Sleep disorders can create several unexpected health problems. © Marcos Mesa Sam Wordley/Shutterstock.com

5. Less Sleep Equals Older-Looking Skin, More Wrinkles

There may be more to the adage “get your beauty sleep” than meets the eye. Consider this: After even one night of poor sleep, do your eyes look puffy? Do those circles appear darker? Are red spots acting up? If you suffer any of these conditions after one night on little-to-no sleep, imagine what happens when you suffer from chronic insomnia, which the National Sleep Foundation defines as disrupted sleep for three-plus nights per week over at least three months. Sleep allows the skin to restore its natural balance. It also increases the effectiveness of the products you use to combat signs of aging or other environmental factors, such as Retinoid creams.

Conversely, insomnia awakens stress hormones that ravage the skin, causing inflammation, acne and a lackluster, dry complexion. Further, if you have poor sleep it shows — with increased sensitivity. The skin is exposed to so much. Lack of sleep can impact how well the epidermis protects underlying layers from the daily onslaught of chemicals and pollutants.


4. Sleep Problems Linked to Weight Gain

A study reported in 2012 by the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention estimated that 30 percent of American workers get fewer than six hours of sleep per night. A study in 1960 found that the average adult slept eight to nine hours each night. While Americans are getting less sleep than in the past, obesity rates have risen. According to the CDC, in 1962 13.4% of Americans were considered “obese” — with a Body Mass Index greater than 30. In 2012, that figure had expanded to 35.1% of Americans. Is this inverse relationship between lack of sleep and weight gain mere coincidence? While there are certainly many factors to consider — lack of exercise, an increase in consumption of junk food and “supersize” portions — some researchers think sleep deprivation in the general public something to do with the obesity epidemic.

You’ve probably noticed how when you’re sleep-deprived you reach for the sugary latte or sweets as a pick-me-up — not the more natural and nutritious energy-boosters, like tea or almonds. Don’t feel too bad; there is a physiological reason behind craving candy, not carrots, when we also crave a catnap. Chew on the sleep-diet connection. Your metabolism can’t function optimally while averaging less than 7.5 hours of quality sleep each night. “Quality” is key as you must both fall asleep (onset, in sleep study parlance) and stay asleep (maintenance) for that sleep to make a difference.

Our sleep is connected to how we lose weight because of nightly hormones; namely, ghrelin and leptin. The former is the green light, telling you when to eat. The latter is the red light — it tells you when to stop eating. Naturally, when you are sleep-deprived you have more of the “eat” hormone (ghrelin) and less of the “stop” hormone (leptin). So not only is your metabolism slower but you’re eating more. It’s only a matter of time before your middle begins to spill over your pants.


3. Sleep Disturbances Could Lead to Alzheimer’s

Chances are, you know from experience that your memory is not as “fresh” without shut-eye. A 2009 study found that deep sleep generates something known as “sharp wave ripples” in the brain. These ripples transfer information from the hippocampus, where new memories are formed and organized, to the neocortex, where long-term memories are stored. Studies have also connected the dots between sleep disturbances and Alzheimer’s disease, as a cause of this devastating condition — not merely a symptom of it. In fact, researchers at Temple University have linked persistent disordered sleep to early-onset Alzheimer’s, which occurs at or before age 65. The study, published in 2014, found that sleep-deprived mice had “significant impairment” in memory retention and learning ability. And the lack of sleep also contributed to synaptic disruptions characteristic of Alzheimer’s. As one researcher noted, “This disruption will eventually impair the brain’s ability for learning, forming new memory and other cognitive functions, and contributes to Alzheimer’s disease.”


2. Chronic Insomnia Linked to Higher Risk of Cancer

The latest wave of research in recent years has explored the connection between difficulty falling (and staying) asleep and several types of cancers. A University of Iceland study selected more than 2,000 men ages 67 to 96 who, at the outset, were cancer-free. During follow-up five years later, adjusting for age and other factors, researchers found men who had problems with both sleep onset and maintenance were 1.6 to 2.1 times more likely to develop prostate cancer than their rested counterparts. Further, those men with advanced prostate cancer and “very severe” sleep issues were 3.2 times more likely to develop the cancer than those free of sleep disturbances.

Another study highlighted in Cancer Research found sleep-disrupted mice developed tumors twice the size of their rested counterparts; moreover, those tumors were more advanced, going through both the muscle and bone. Researchers believe fragmented sleep changes how the immune system deals with cancer, allowing tumors to run amok. Other studies have explored sleep’s effect on colorectal and breast cancers.


1. Lack of Sleep Increases the Risk of Early Death

Obesity. Diabetes. Anxiety. Cancer. At this point, it should probably come as no surprise that numerous studies have associated ongoing sleep deficits with an early grave. A study of 23,500 U.S. men launched in 2004 found that insomniacs in the group were 55% more likely to succumb to cardiovascular disease than healthy sleepers. In a 20-year study conducted in the UK, researchers followed the sleep habits of more than 10,000 men and discovered those who cut their sleep from seven to five or fewer hours were nearly twice as likely to have died (from various causes), with the risk of death from cardiovascular disease particularly pronounced.

It’s believed poor sleep sets off a chain of hormonal and metabolic mechanisms, contributing to premature death. The “sweet spot” for optimal health appears to be between six to nine hours nightly, as both those subjects who averaged fewer than six hours and those who slept more than nine hours were at greater risk of early death. Unlike insomnia, it’s believed oversleeping is an indicator of a potentially deadly condition — not a cause of illness.

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Michelle Leach's love of writing has taken her to Sydney, Australia, London, U.K. and other exotic locations like Grand Island, Neb., and Clio, Mich. She has developed pieces for TV and radio stations, PR departments, newspapers and magazines. A graduate of Northwestern University and Lake Forest College (also in Illinois) she enjoys running marathons and likes to say when not writing, she’s running — but she tries not to mix the two activities.