For overall health, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends adults regularly get at least 7 hours of sleep at night. About 35% of U.S. adults fall short of that goal. If you’re one of them, you may wonder what’s the big deal if you often get less sleep.
Even if you think you’re managing just fine with less sleep, the effects of lack of sleep add up over time. Not getting enough regular, quality sleep — also known as sleep deprivation — can lead to severe physical and mental health problems.
That’s because getting a good night’s sleep has long-term protective effects on your body and mind. It’s right up there with eating healthy and staying physically active.
How Does Lack of Sleep Affect Physical Health
When it comes to your physical health, sleep deprivation may lead to the following:
- Diabetes. Getting enough quality sleep may help you control blood sugar if you have type 2 diabetes. Less sleep and poor quality sleep may increase your risk for type 2
- Dementia. According to the National Institutes of Health, older adults getting 6 hours or less per night may be more likely to develop dementia.
- Heart disease in individuals with sleep
- High blood pressure. During normal sleep, your blood pressure goes down. If your sleep is too short or fragmented, your blood pressure stays elevated for longer.
- Obesity and weight gain. Short sleep duration may cause metabolic changes in your body that increase your risk of obesity. Sleep also controls an area of the brain that affects hunger.
- Early death. When you’re sleep-deprived, you also have slower reaction times. So, you also have an increased risk of accidents and injuries.
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How Does Lack of Sleep Affect Mental Health
When it comes to your mental health, sleep deprivation can lead to the following:
- Decreased cognitive functioning.
- Chronic or ongoing mental stress.
Other Ways Sleep Deprivation Can Affect You
When you are sleep deprived, you’re not only hurting yourself. Chronic sleep loss creates situations that can harm others.
You should never get behind the wheel of a vehicle when you’re tired. But even one lost hour of sleep can make you an unsafe driver. According to a study in BMC Med, getting only 6 hours of sleep led to a 33% increased crash risk. That’s compared to sleeping 7 or 8 hours per night.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, drowsy driving is a major cause of traffic accidents and fatalities. It was responsible for 633 traffic deaths in 2020. NHTSA also estimates drowsy drivers are responsible for 91,000 crashes and 50,000 traffic injuries.
Chronic sleep loss can also affect your home, school, and work relationships.
Losing sleep to focus on work may not get you the desired promotion. People who get 5 to 6 hours of sleep each night are 19% less productive. That’s compared to people who sleep 7 or 8 hours a night, according to a study published in the journal SLEEP.
It’s worse for those who sleep less than 5 hours a night. They are 29% less productive, according to that study.
Sleep Deprivation Symptoms
The main signs of sleep deprivation are excessive sleepiness and daytime fatigue. Other symptoms of include:
- Difficulty concentrating or reduced attention span.
- Slower thinking.
- Lack of energy or motivation.
- Memory problems.
- Poor or risky decision-making.
- Mood changes. You may be anxious, irritable, or stressed.
- Frequent illness.
But you may not realize that you are sleep deprived.
What Causes Sleep Deprivation?
Sleep deprivation isn’t only about your choice to sleep fewer hours each night. You may plan to or think you’re getting 7 hours or more of sleep each night. But instead of a restful night’s sleep, you wake up a lot — resulting in fragmented sleep.
Several reasons can cause or contribute to fragmented sleep, including:
- Disruptions to your circadian rhythm, the body clock that regulates your cycle of being asleep at night and awake during the day. Nighttime shift work is another common reason for a circadian rhythm that’s out of sync.
- Poor sleep hygiene, including drinking caffeine or alcohol close to bedtime. Or using electronics before bed. The blue light these devices emit disrupts your body’s production of melatonin, the brain chemical that signals it’s time to sleep.
- Underlying sleep disorders.
Sleep disorders that cause sleep deprivation
Four main sleep disorders can cause or contribute to sleep deprivation. They are:
Insomnia is when you have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep or both. Or you might wake up early in the morning, hours before your alarm clock goes off, and be unable to fall back asleep.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, half of all U.S. adults experience insomnia now and then. And 10% have chronic or long-term insomnia.
A neurological disorder, narcolepsy causes excessive sleepiness and sudden loss of muscle control. You may often fall asleep during the day without planning or knowing it. Symptoms also include insomnia and hallucinations.
Restless leg syndrome (RLS)
Some people have trouble sleeping because when they lay still, they can’t help moving their legs because they feel achy or weird. If you feel this way, you may have restless leg syndrome called RLS. It can feel like something crawling, tingling, or pulling inside your legs. It can stop you from being able to sleep soundly.
According to the National Library of Medicine, up to 10% of U.S. adults and 4% of U.S. children experience RLS.
If you have sleep apnea, you’re at an increased risk for heart disease, including irregular heartbeats, high blood pressure, and stroke.
If you’re not getting enough sleep or having trouble doing so, your doctor can help you get to the root cause. They can also refer you to a sleep medicine specialist who can advise on improving your sleep hygiene. If you have a sleep disorder, they can also provide treatment options that work.
Editor's Note: This article was originally published on , and was last reviewed on .
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