Though most people know they should be getting seven to eight hours of sleep per night, that doesn’t mean they actually are. On the contrary, a 2013 Gallup poll found that a whopping 40 percent of Americans are getting less than seven hours of shut eye every night. Understandably, sleep is hardly a priority for people who have to balance careers, families, and personal lives—but given how much of an impact it has on your health, it should be. Before your next late night at the office or midnight movie marathon, consider these health problems caused by lack of sleep.
“Sleep is critical for brain health and a persistent lack of sleep can be a predisposing factor to dementia,” notes internist Dr. Stephen Schimpff in his book Longevity Decoded: The 7 Keys to Healthy Aging.
It’s true: People who suffer from consistently poor sleep sessions tend to have higher concentrations of beta-amyloid protein in their brain, which has long been attributed to the development of dementia and Alzheimer’s, according to 2015 research published in Nature Neuroscience. The researchers behind the study confirmed this link when they found that those who slept worst had both the highest concentrations of beta-amyloid in their brains and performed the worst on memory tests.
This may shock you, but among the risk factors for colon cancer is a lack of sleep. In a 2011 study published in the journal Cancer, researchers found that subjects who averaged less than six hours of sleep per night had a nearly 50 percent increased risk of colorectal adenomas—which are precursor lesions of colon cancer—compared to those who averaged more than seven hours every night.
In his book, Schimpff also notes that sleep deprivation “raises the risk for hypertension,” or high blood pressure. Research published in the journal Hypertension even found that over a 10-year period, people who slept for five hours or less per night were more than twice as likely to have high blood pressure.
Seeing as the Mayo Clinic lists hypertension as a risk factor for everything from metabolic syndrome to heart failure, this is definitely a health problem worth taking seriously.
One of the most common health problems from lack of sleep is obesity. As Schimpff mentions in his book, being up late “leads to snacking and hence gaining too much weight.” Plus, “when we get too little sleep, we tend to crave food, usually the wrong foods.”
In one 2006 study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, researchers followed approximately 60,000 women for 16 years and found that those who slept five hours or less nightly had a 15 percent higher risk of obesity than those who got seven hours of shut eye.
Another health problem caused by lack of sleep is heart disease, because “people with poor sleep patterns have an increased buildup in plaques,” according to Sanjiv M. Patel, MD, a cardiologist at MemorialCare Heart & Vascular Institute at Orange Coast Medical Center in California.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) even warns that sleeping fewer than seven hours a night puts you at greater risk of a heart attack, so make sure you’re spending enough time in dreamland every night.
Believe it or not, one of the easiest ways to fight off type 2 diabetes is with an adequate amount of sleep. When Harvard researchers analyzed 11 reports on the relationship between sleep duration and diabetes, they found that for every hour less than seven hours that a person slept, they had a 9 percent increased risk of type 2 diabetes.
However, don’t think that sleeping in every weekend is going to solve your problems, either: The study authors also found that every additional hour a person slept over seven hours was associated with a 14 percent increased risk of type 2 diabetes. Seven hours, the study concluded, is the sweet spot.
When you don’t get enough sleep, studies have shown that your pain perception is significantly heightened. In addition, a lack of sleep causes increased inflammation throughout the body that can exacerbate existing issues, like chronic back pain.
“Losing that precious rest time can actually lead to, or worsen, back pain, especially if you are sleeping on the wrong mattress or pillow,” says Neel Anand, MD, professor of orthopedic surgery and director of spine trauma at Cedars-Sinai Spine Center in Los Angeles.
You’re not doing your mental wellness any favors by skipping out on sleep. One 2018 study published in the Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry found that when people got less than eight hours of sleep a night, they were more likely to dwell on their negative thoughts and feelings.
And if you’re already struggling with depression, then a lack of sleep will only worsen your issue. “There are serious emotional problems caused by lack of sleep,” explains David Cutler, MD, a family medicine physician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in California. “Depression is often aggravated, and simply making good judgments can be impaired.”
You can use all the moisturizers and face washes in the world, and you still won’t have flawless, wrinkle-free skin unless you’re getting enough sleep.
“The hormone cortisol, released in stressful situations, causes the breakdown of collagen, the protein which keeps your skin smooth, taut, and elastic,” explains Cutler. “Also, growth hormone is released during sleep, and this hormone is important for tissue repair and muscle tone.”
If you constantly feel in a fog at work, you might have all those late nights to blame. Cutler explains that for many, “diminished intellectual functioning” is one of the health problems from lack of sleep. “Even physicians are affected as computerized records indicate more errors in the sleepy afternoon hours than in the morning,” he notes.
Oddly enough, not getting enough sleep can result in dehydration. That’s because, according to a 2018 study from Penn State, the body releases a hormone called vasopressin when we sleep in order to regulate hydration levels—and when we don’t sleep enough, there isn’t enough time for an adequate amount to be released.
Studies have shown that one of the factors that can contribute to sleepwalking is a lack of sleep. And seeing as sleepwalking has been found to result in major injuries and hospitalizations, people who are predisposed to the condition should make sure that they are sleeping enough every night.
Though daytime sleepiness might not seem like a health problem, per se, Cutler notes that it can have potentially fatal consequences, particularly in dangerous work environments. “Serious industrial accidents like the Exxon Valdez oil spill and the Chernobyl nuclear disasters have been attributed to workers with excessive daytime sleepiness,” he says. “In addition, a large percentage of motor vehicle accidents and related deaths are the result of sleep deprivation.”
Without an immune system, your body can’t fight off the infections, viruses, and bacteria that come its way day in and day out. And if you aren’t sleeping enough, then rest assured (pun intended) that your immune system isn’t doing its job as well as it should be.
One 2017 study published in the journal Sleep analyzed 11 sets of twins with different sleeping patterns and found that the twins who slept less on average had weaker immune systems compared to their siblings who got adequate amounts of sleep. And for more ways to stay healthy, besides sleep, check out these 40 Easy Tweaks to Boost Your Health After 40.
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