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Effects of Sleep Deprivation on the Body

20 September 2023

Your body needs sleep – like food, water, and oxygen. Not allowing your body to get the required sleep can lead to several mental and physical issues. Over time, these issues can develop into long-term consequences that can affect your mental, chemical, and physical functions and even impact the quality of your life.

If you have found yourself turning and tossing at night, you probably understand pretty well what sleep deprivation can do for you the next day – you cannot think clearly and feel tired and grumpy. But that is just the tip of the iceberg. A lot goes on in your body due to a lack of sleep. Let us begin by looking at how it affects our essential body systems.

Central Nervous System

The central nervous system can be thought of as the highway of information within your body. It carries information from external stimuli to the brain. For instance, if you lay as much as a finger on something hot, the CNS is responsible for telling the brain that your finger's skin temperature has exceeded danger limits. The brain then signals the muscles in your arm to contract and remove your finger from the hot surface. All of this happens in a fraction of a second.

Your CNS comprises of millions of neurons, which are responsible for carrying and storing information. During sleep, your brain builds new connections between these neurons, which helps you retain information. A lack of sleep hinders the formation of these connections, leaving your brain tired and unable to function properly.

You will also notice that you are unable to concentrate properly and have trouble learning new things. Since the information highways are not properly repaired, you will also find that your reaction times have slowed down, resulting in a lack of coordination.

In addition to affecting your cognitive abilities, sleep deprivation can also impact your mood and emotions. You are more likely to have mood swings and impaired creativity and decision-making.

If you are persistently not getting enough sleep, the effects are likely to become more severe, and you may begin to hallucinate, i.e., see things that are not even there.

All these effects can lead to multiple problems in your daily life. Let us look at a few of them.

Increased Accidents

You may be surprised to know that lack of sleep is a major factor behind some of the biggest disasters over recent decades. These include:

1. The nuclear accident at Three Mile Island in 1979 began with a pressure valve failing to close in the nuclear reactor. This resulted in radiation-contaminated water draining into nearby areas, and the water loss caused the core to overheat. The human operators misinterpreted the readings from the reactor and forcefully shut off the master valve to the emergency water system. Even though the reactor was shut down, the heat from the fission process continued to increase the temperature, nearing a meltdown

2. The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill in 1989 was one of the worst oil spills in the history of mankind. It occurred when an oil tanker spilled 11 million gallons of oil into the ocean after striking the Bligh reef due to human error. The oil slick spread across 1300 miles, killing several hundred thousand sea creatures, including birds, seals, otters, and whales.

3. The Chernobyl nuclear meltdown in 1986: A routine safety test spiraled out of control, causing a strong power surge and eventually leading to a series of explosions that blew the reactor apart. This is considered the worst nuclear accident to date. It killed 31 people due to radiation contamination, including firefighters and workers working to contain and clean up after the accident.

In addition to these huge disasters, lack of sleep is also responsible for many day-to-day accidents that rarely make the news. It is found that people who have not gotten proper sleep are more likely to fall into accidents than those who have.

One study by the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) finds that drowsy driving is responsible for thousands of accidents each year. It explains that a sleepy driver's reaction time is slowed down significantly and is similar to that of a drunk driver.

Feeling Dumbed Down

As discussed above, lack of sleep can significantly impact cognitive abilities. These impacts often result in a series of effects. The areas that suffer the most are alertness, attention, focus, problem-solving, and reasoning.

The learning ability is also impaired because sleep helps to consolidate all memories. If you don't get proper sleep, in terms of quantity and quality, you are less likely to remember your experiences and learnings during the day.

Depression

Depression causes a lack of sleep, and lack of sleep causes further depression. According to numerous studies, people diagnosed with anxiety or depression are likely to sleep less - some getting only four to five hours of sleep.

These studies depict that people who suffer from insomnia are more likely to develop depression, and insomnia is also one of the first symptoms of depression. It is an endless cycle that requires professional intervention. Since insomnia fuels depression and depression feeds on insomnia, treating one can lower the impact of the other.

Immune System

As you sleep, your body goes into energy-saving mode. This happens because your body does not need a lot of energy to move about, think, and carry out any activities. However, your body uses energy to repair and prepare itself for upcoming challenges. One of the areas it works on is the immune system.

As you ride the dreamland express, your body is busy producing soldiers that help protect it from infections and diseases. These soldiers are cytokines and antibodies that fight uninvited intruders such as viruses and bacteria.

If you don't sleep properly, your body is unable to produce and reinforce these soldiers, leaving you prone to attack from invaders. This often results in more illness and taking longer to recover once you have contracted an illness.

Digestive System

Many people allocate only two reasons to weight gain; eating unhealthily and lack of exercise. However, there is another hidden culprit that contributes to obesity and weight gain. You guessed it, lack of sleep.

Among the many hormones that sleep regulates in your body, there are leptin and ghrelin. These hormones are responsible for letting your mind know that you are full and don't need to eat anymore. When you don't get enough sleep, your body is unable to regulate these hormones. It lowers leptin levels and increases ghrelin, which makes you feel hungry. An irregular level of these hormones will cause you to start craving midnight snacks, leading you to overeat and gain weight.

Lack of sleep also causes reduced insulin levels. Insulin is the biochemical that helps that process glucose in your blood. Problems with insulin levels can lead to several issues in your body, including obesity and diabetes.

Treating Sleep Deprivation

We have heard it a thousand times and thousand times over: you need to get at least seven to nine hours of sleep every night. But this is much easier said than done, especially if you suffer from mental health issues or sleep disorders.

If you have not been able to get the right amount of sleep for several weeks, getting back to a healthy amount can be quite challenging. You might need to consult a sleep specialist who will diagnose and try to treat any sleep disorders you may have.

Prevention is the Best Cure

Although treatment for sleep disorders is possible, it takes time and effort. The best way to get adequate sleep is to make changes to your lifestyle and allow healthy habits to build. Here are some things you can do to build healthy sleep habits.

1. Go to bed and wake up at the same time each day. Try your best to hit the sack at the same time each day. It can be tempting to party and stay up late on Friday nights but don't give in to these temptations. Similarly, if you set the alarm for 7 AM, make sure it is set for all days of the week, including weekends and holidays.

2. Refrain from napping during the day. If you must take a nap, make sure they are short (30 minutes or less).

3. Limit caffeine and alcohol intake

4. Do not use your phone or other devices in bed. This is probably one of the most challenging habits to build because we reach out for our phones without thinking about it. But it is essential to consciously build a habit of not using your phone in bed.

5. Invest in an ergonomic bed. A comfortable bed will help improve your sleep quality and duration.

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Final Thoughts

Sleep deprivation can cause a range of problems for your mental and physical health. From making you more accident-prone to weakening your immune system and causing you to gain weight, lack of sleep can adversely affect your overall health.

It is essential to get between seven and nine hours of sleep every night to allow your body to repair itself and get ready to meet the next day's challenges.