Let this be a wake-up call for those who doubt the doctors who keep telling us that we really need to get seven to nine hours of sleep per night: sleep deprivation does very real, very significant damage to the human body and our overall sense of well-being. The more resources that science invests in studying the impact of sleeplessness on the human body, the longer the list of body systems, organs and measures of wellness that are impacted grows. Here is a quick rundown of what is known so far, though as more research is done it is expected that the list will only grow longer.
• Think sleep deprivation only refers to people like Michael Jackson, who it’s said went for as long as two months without sleep? The truth is that as soon as you miss a single night of sleep your body starts to feel the impact. A study published in the journal Biological Psychiatry in 2008 said that after the first few hours of missed sleep your tissues start to experience inflammation, a problem that can be a big concern for people who are already suffering from inflammation-related health issues such as rheumatoid arthritis, autoimmune diseases and cardiovascular disease.
• We all are well aware of the various health issues related to being overweight – even if you’re not obese and are relatively healthy, there’s a good chance that you’re one of the millions of people in the United States who would like to lose a few pounds. If you’re not getting enough sleep, you’re actually sabotaging your chances of burning calories and losing weight. A study that was published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics cited conclusions that indicated that sleep deprivation drives levels of the hormone ghrelin up and the hormone leptin down. Ghrelin increases appetite and leptin helps you recognize when you are full.
• Are you one of those people who takes plenty of vitamins and regularly uses hand sanitizer in order to ward off illness and other people’s germs? If you’re not getting seven to nine hours of sleep per night, you’re probably wasting your time, as lack of sleep has a deleterious effect on your immune system, and makes it far more likely that you will catch a cold or the flu. Even the vaccinations that you receive against the flu aren’t going to have as big an impact if you get them when you’re sleep deprived.
• A special concern for health advocates is the fact that so many American children, adolescents and teens are getting far less sleep than they need. Not only does this have a negative impact on their ability to learn and remember, but it may be contributing to a number of widely-publicized behavioral problems that are taking place in schools today. A study conducted at the University of Michigan and published in the journal Sleep Medicine showed that children are twice as likely to pick on their peers, act like bullies and be generally disruptive if they show signs of sleep-disordered breathing, and another study showed that children who are sleep-deprived may actually be incorrectly diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) when their real problem is that they need more sleep.
• People who have important decisions to make would be wise to get a good night’s sleep before signing on any dotted lines, and investors and gamblers take note: a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience showed that people who are short on sleep are prone to having a false sense of optimism and are prone to making risky choices. All you need to do to convince yourself of that is to walk through a gambling casino after one or two in the morning and take a look at the bleary-eyed gamblers sitting at the tables. There is no doubt that some of them are putting down money that they wouldn’t be likely to be risk in the light of day, with a good night of sleep under their belt.
• Here’s one that will explain a lot of broken hearts and bruised egos – a study published in the journal Sleep indicated that when men don’t get enough sleep, they are much more likely to misinterpret the cues that are being given to them by women, thinking incorrectly that a woman is interested in them romantically or that they want to be intimate with them. According to the study, the effects of sleep deprivation were even greater than those of having too much alcohol to drink.
• One of the more frightening studies to come out of sleep research was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It showed that even a few hours of lost sleep per night can not only make you feel bad and risk all of the problems above, but can also create significant alterations in the normal activity of your genes. Since genes are intricately involved in nearly every bodily process, these changes can do untold harm ranging from metabolic changes to increased stress.
• The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration has made it clear that sleep deprivation and driving don’t mix. Not only do you put yourself at risk when you get behind the wheel without adequate sleep, but you also endanger anybody who shares the road with you. There are a number of reasons for this, but physiologically speaking short sleep diminishes your hand-eye coordination and reaction times. It also has a negative impact on your judgment. The safety agency estimates that there were 83,000 car and truck accidents that took place in the years between 2005 and 2009 that were caused by drowsy driving, and that does not begin to address the accidents that have involved planes, ships, trains and other forms of mass transportation.
• Believe it or not, when you miss out on sleep, the size of your brain is actually reduced. The volume of gray matter appearing on brain scans of insomniacs was much lower than that found on the brain scans of normal sleepers.