Sleep plays a crucial role in your physical and mental well-being
Approximately one-third of U.S. adults don't get the recommended 7-8 hours of sleep per night
Prolonged sleep deprivation effects can be serious, including an increased risk of heart disease, heart attack, stroke, diabetes, hypertension and more
Maintaining healthy sleep habits may help you overcome a vicious sleep-stress cycle
It can feel great to let your head hit the pillow after a long day, but getting enough sleep isn't just about taking a break from your waking hours. It's a time to recharge your mind and body, so you feel rejuvenated when you wake up. A good night's sleep is also essential for your overall health. Sleep allows your brain to function properly, your muscles to repair themselves, your immune system to stave off illnesses and much more.
Despite the importance of sleep, it can be difficult to get the recommended minimum of seven hours per night for the average adult. With a long list of tasks related to work, family, exercise and a social life, plus the many causes of stress, it's no surprise that an estimated one in three U.S. adults don't get enough rest.
Let's take a look at why prolonged sleep deprivation is harmful to your body and how you can overcome it to get your schedule back on track.
How Sleep Deprivation Affects Your Body
When you deprive yourself of sleep for a prolonged period, feeling groggy in the morning isn't the only repercussion. Prolonged sleep deprivation could also impact the following:
Short sleep duration is associated with high blood pressure (hypertension), high cholesterol levels, increased risk of atherosclerosis, and increased risk of heart disease and heart attack. To encourage a heart-healthy lifestyle, make sleep a priority.
Migraines and Headaches
Have you ever experienced an increase in headaches when you don't get enough sleep? You're not imagining it. Research shows a correlation between migraine frequency and poor sleep quality, and prolonged sleep deprivation can trigger headaches.
Before a big test at school or an important meeting at work, you may be told to get a good night's rest. This is because sleep and cognitive performance, or your mental abilities, are linked. Lack of sleep can impair your attention, memory and decision-making. Getting on a regular sleep schedule may make you feel more alert and mentally sharp.
Increased Risk of Disease and Injury
The long-term effects of prolonged sleep deprivation can be serious. They include an increased risk of diseases like stroke, diabetes, hypertension, heart attack and obesity. Lack of sleep can also increase the risk of injury, especially in the bones, muscles, tendons, soft tissues and ligaments. Stroke, diabetes, heart disease and unintentional injuries are among the leading causes of death in the U.S. It's impossible to fully eliminate the risk of disease and injury, but ensuring you're fully rested is a step in the right direction.
Other Sleep Deprivation Effects
Sleep loss can affect you in ways you may not notice or feel immediately. Over time, these side effects of prolonged sleep deprivation can have serious consequences. Poor sleep is also associated with:
Sleep is a natural part of life, but it doesn't come easy to everyone. Sleep disorders like insomnia are common and can contribute to sleep loss, interrupted sleep or low-quality sleep. While sleep disorders may require specialized treatment to manage, there are some simple ways to improve your sleep immediately.
Stick to a Consistent Wake and Sleep Schedule
Your circadian rhythm is tied to the sunrise and sunset, so your body knows when to wake and sleep based on the daylight or lack thereof. Your body will also grow accustomed to waking up and going to sleep at the same time if you stick to a consistent schedule. If you have irregular sleeping patterns, meaning you wake up and go to sleep at different times throughout the week, your circadian rhythm may be off. Get your sleep schedule on track, and soon you may not need your alarm.
Minimize Exposure to Light in the Evening
Your circadian rhythm is intrinsically linked to the cycle of day and night. During the day, exposure to bright light is good for you because it suppresses the production of melatonin. At night, reduce your exposure to light, including blue light from your electronics, so natural and supplemental melatonin can work properly. If you have a tendency to scroll on social media right before bed, try replacing your evening screen time with other activities like reading or meditating.
Create a Relaxing Environment for Sleep
Restful sleep is more likely to come if you're comfortable. Take a look at your sleep environment and consider factors like light, sound, temperature and bed quality. Keep your bedroom dark and quiet so there aren't any distractions. Set your thermostat to a comfortably cool temperature since temperatures that are too hot or too cold can affect your sleep. Finally, consider your mattress, bedding and pillows—all should be supportive yet comfortable and conducive to sleep.
The Bottom Line
Sleep is a basic human need just like food and water. Its importance is often underestimated, so many people don't get enough of it. Time is finite, and some people extend their waking hours by cutting into time that should be reserved for sleep. Stress is also often the culprit for sleep deprivation. This creates a sleep-stress cycle where stressors get in the way of quality sleep, but the lack of sleep worsens stress and continues the cycle.
Get ahead of the cycle by making sleep a priority. Getting into a consistent routine, like going to bed at the same time every night, may help you get better sleep and reduce the negative health effects of sleep deprivation. Talk to a healthcare professional if you think melatonin products may be a good option for you.
Medicine (Baltimore). "Associations between sleep quality and migraine frequency: A cross-sectional case-control study." April 29, 2016. Accessed on: December 20, 2021. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4998727/
Institute of Medicine (US) Committee on Sleep Medicine and Research. "Sleep disorders and sleep deprivation: An unmet public health problem." 2006. Accessed on: December 20, 2021. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK19961/
Hanlon EC, Tasali E, Leproult R, et al. Sleep Restriction Enhances the Daily Rhythm of Circulating Levels of Endocannabinoid 2-Arachidonoylglycerol. Sleep. 2016;39(3):653-664. Published 2016 Mar 1. doi:10.5665/sleep.5546
SQU Medical Journal. “Sleep deprivation and depression.” February 2015. Accessed on: February 2, 2022. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4318605/
As a member of the Medical and Scientific Communications team, Sandra educates healthcare professionals and consumers on nutrition, supplements, and related health concerns. Prior to joining Pharmavite, Sandra worked as a clinical dietitian at University of Chicago Medicine in the inpatient and outpatient settings. Sandra received her Bachelor of Science degree in Nutritional Science, with minors in Spanish and Chemistry from the University of Arizona in Tucson, AZ. She earned her Master of Science degree in Clinical Nutrition from RUSH University in Chicago, IL. As part of her Master’s program, Sandra performed research on physical activity participation and correlates in urban Hispanic women.