Mind

What sleep deprivation is really doing to you

Insomnia is a very common problem that takes a toll on your energy, mood and ability to function during the day.

By Donna Fleming

We all know that not getting enough sleep is bad for us. But understanding exactly what it can do may help you to be vigilant about getting adequate shut-eye.

What sleep deprivation is really doing to you

• It affects your concentration and is one of the major causes of accidents. Major catastrophes such as the 1986 nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl and the huge Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 have been attributed to people who were sleep-deprived. But even getting behind the wheel of your car when you’re fatigued is a recipe for disaster. Sleep loss and poor-quality sleep also lead to accidents and injuries at work.

• It reduces your brain power. You’ll find it harder to pay attention and absorb information if you’re lacking sleep. It also becomes more difficult to make reasoned judgments and solve problems. And later on, you won’t be able to remember what you have learned or experienced as well.

• A lack of sleep is associated with some serious health conditions, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke and diabetes. According to some research, more than 80% of people who suffer from insomnia also have another health condition.

• It can aggravate depression or even lead to it if you’re seriously stressed about not being able to sleep.

• It affects your sex drive. Studies show that people who don’t get as much sleep as they should have lower libidos. Meanwhile, men with sleep apnoea also tend to have lower testosterone levels and less interest in sex.

• It has an impact on your immune system. When you sleep, your body produces substances that fight infections in your body, so if you don’t get a good sleep, you may not have enough of these substances to fend off illness. It may also take you a lot longer to recover when you get sick. Unfortunately, it is a catch-22 situation. You may find it hard to sleep if you are depressed and worried about things, and that lack of sleep can then make depression worse. Trouble sleeping is often one of the first signs of depression.

• It takes a toll on your skin. Over time, chronic sleep loss can lead to sallow skin, fine lines and dark circles under the eyes. When you are in the deep sleep stage, your body releases the human growth hormone, which helps to thicken skin, as well as increasing muscle mass and strengthen bones. Sleep loss can result in your body not releasing this hormone.

• It can contribute to weight gain. People who sleep less than six hours a night are nearly 30% more likely to be obese than those who get seven or more hours sleep, according
to one study. There is a link between sleep and the substances in our bodies that regulate appetite. When you’re sleep deprived, you tend to have higher levels of ghrelin, which stimulates appetite and makes you hungry, but lower levels of leptin, which tells the brain you are full. Sleep deprivation also prompts your body to release more insulin, which controls blood sugar. Higher insulin levels promote fat storage.

• It makes you grumpy. Not enough sleep affects emotions, making you more irritable and prone to mood swings.

Sleep deprivation has been linked to:

• A higher chance of having a stomach ulcer
• Constipation
• Making chronic diseases, such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and kidney disease worse
• Increasing your risk of dying early from any cause.

Does sleep loss affect you?

One of the problems about getting a lack of sleep is that over time, you get used to functioning on less shut-eye and feeling tired becomes your default setting. It can feel normal to you and you don’t realise how it is affecting you. What people like this need, say sleep experts, is a wake-up call.

Putting them through tests of their mental alertness can be a real eye-opener and may convince them to try to get more sleep.

How much sleep do you need?

Between seven and nine hours is considered optimum. While many people seem to function on six hours, over time, getting less will take a toll because the body needs a certain time asleep to be able to do important repair work.

While a shortage is bad for you, too much shut-eye over a long period of time can also be unhealthy. Like too little sleep, it is also associated with increased risk of depression, brain impairment, weight gain and a greater chance of getting diabetes and heart disease.

So the trick is to aim for around eight hours a night.

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