Effects of Sleep Deprivation

I’m a stickler about getting adequate sleep. If you read last week’s post, you saw that I average eight hours of sleep each night. It isn’t always eight hours of restful sleep, mind you, but getting to bed at least eight hours before I know I have to be up in the morning sets me on the right path.

I tend to be pretty resistant to deviating from my bedtime, and I’ve taken plenty of heat for it from my social circle. But setting aside the more anecdotal “early bird gets the worm” argument, there are dozens of health-related reasons to turn down watching that 8pm game on a work night.

Here are just a few that were recently mentioned in an article by CNN:

  • High blood pressure
  • Weakened immunity
  • Weight gain
  • Lack of libido
  • Mood swings
  • Depression
  • Higher risks of lifestyle diseases like Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease
  • Lack of focus
  • Slower reflexes
  • Poor physical repairs (for things like muscle tissue)

Paying attention yet?

“But you can sleep in this weekend and get caught up.”

Actually, Jack, that might make matters worse. The timing of your sleep is just as important as how much sleep you’re getting. Conversationally you may have heard it said that the eight hours between 9pm and 5am are not the same as the eight hours between 1am and 9am. Scientifically, we’re talking about disruption of the circadian rhythm. Research at Washington State University found that regular disruption in the timing of your sleep, rather than the amount of sleep you get, had a negative impact on both quality of sleep and immune system function. If you’re someone who is prone to the common cold and generally being under the weather, take a look at your sleep habits.

Another study published in October 2013 also found that sleep deprivation has a negative effect on the immune system. This study was performed on healthy young men, and limited their sleep to four hours per night for a five-day work week. The results showed increased levels of inflammation in all of the sleep-deprived participants. Chronic inflammation is commonly associated with Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular diseases, supporting the conclusion that long-term sleep deprivation puts you at higher risk of these diseases.

If all of that still feels like too long-term to worry about, how about this? After just one night of poor and insufficient sleep, your brain fires up a pathway mimicking that seen in anxiety disorders. The result? A significant increase in anticipatory anxiety, i.e. worrying. The effects are worse if you’re already someone prone to feeling anxious.

Now let’s talk about lack of sleep and weight gain. Why does it happen? This study showed that after just four nights of sleep deprivation, the brain’s endocannabinoid (eCB) levels were both higher and more long-lasting than those in subjects who were not sleep deprived. That’s super science-y so let’s get straight to the point:  The eCB system affects the brain’s reward pathway, which we talked about in more detail in my post about sugar highs. The bottom line? When you’re sleep deprived you not only feel hungrier, you’re also more likely to satisfy your hunger by eating crap.

Sleep 2

So what can you do to set yourself up for a better night’s sleep? Here’s what I do:

  1. Set a routine and let your body get used to it. By 9pm my mind and body are ready to start powering down in bed with a good book. Face is washed and teeth are brushed before nine to accommodate this. I read until my eyes naturally start to droop closed, then turn out the light.
  2. Go to bed and get up at the same time on weekends, too. Most people are concerned about how this will affect their social lives. Try shifting your social activities to daytime hours. As a general rule, if you’re getting together late at night, you’re probably doing other stuff that isn’t healthy for you, either. (Hangover, anyone?) Other things we traditionally associate with night-time activities can easily be shifted to the afternoon, i.e. movies, game “nights”, and restaurant dates. And for bonus points, afternoon activities often cost less than their after-dark counterparts.
  3. Pay attention to your nighttime food consumption. Is there something that you’re eating that’s keeping you up at night? Everyone is different, so if you find that you struggle with restful sleep, see if your late-night snacking is the culprit.
  4. Be active during the day. There’s nothing worse than getting into bed at night and laying there wide awake. The more physically active you are during the day, the more your body will be ready for some deep, reparative sleep at night.

Sometimes there are things outside our control that will interfere with our sleep. Getting stuck on a late or early flight, having young children in the house, or an irregular work schedule are just a few examples. The important thing is to prioritize your sleep for the sake of your health and do what you can to ensure you’re taking the best possible care of yourself.



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