On sleepless nights, we insomniacs sometimes console ourselves with the thought that as long as we’re lying down in the dark with our eyes shut, we’re still getting the rest we need. Well, I have some bad news for my red-eyed zombie brethren: Like the notion that money has nothing to do with happiness, that’s a comforting lie. You need seven to nine hours of real, dead-to-the-world sleep on a regular basis. Anyone who gets less than five or six hours per night will suffer physical and cognitive decline.
At the risk of giving anyone further cause to lie awake at night, here are the long-term risks that inadequate sleep presents to the mind and body.
Sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired
Along with shortening your lifespan, substandard sleep puts you at risk of serious conditions like diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer and Alzheimer’s. By compromising your immunity, it also increases your susceptibility to everything from pneumonia to the common cold.
According to sleep expert Matthew Walker, when large numbers of people lose an hour of sleep at the onset of daylight saving time, relative heart attack rates go up by 24 percent the following day. The day after the clocks go back in the fall, heart attacks go down by 21 percent.
Sleep deprivation affects hormones as well. In women, it can lead to a 20 to 30 percent reduction in a follicle-stimulating hormone, which can result in miscarriage and/or an interrupted menstrual cycle.
Men who average four or five hours of sleep per night will experience a drop in testosterone levels equivalent to aging 10 to 15 years. Low testosterone levels are linked to fatigue, low energy, poor concentration, low sex drive, excess body fat, low muscle mass and subpar bone density.
In both men and women, lack of sleep can lead to weight gain. At the same time that it lowers levels of leptin—a hormone that decreases appetite when your body has stored sufficient energy from food—it also raises levels of ghrelin, a hormone that stimulates hunger and increases fat storage. What could go wrong there, right?
The Wrong Side of the Bed
Anxiety, depression, spaciness, diminished cognitive performance … these are some of the negative effects of sleep deprivation on the mind and emotions. This can give rise to everything from car accidents to suicides.
The amygdala, a part of the brain that has been linked to strong emotional reactions, can become hyperreactive in sleep-deprived people, causing the emotions to go off the rails. This amygdala-gone-wild phenomenon may play a part in the known connection between sleep loss and psychiatric disorders like anxiety, PTSD, depression and schizophrenia.
So, that’s the bad news. The good news? There are loads of research-backed approaches to improving sleep.
Don't believe us? We've got a whole load of it right here on Trends w/ Benefits:
Too busy to read right now? Over on the Trends w/ Benefits podcast, Kyle Thiermann speaks to Mariana Figueiro Ph.D. about the impact of light on our wake/sleep cycle.
So hang in there, friends—there is better rest ahead.
Damon Orion is a freelance journalist based in Santa Cruz, CA. Read more of his work at damonorion.com.