Sleep goes far beyond restoring your good looks. Contrary to old beliefs, sleep is not a passive activity, it’s a highly active process – a maintenance window for tuning and tweaking our bodies and brains to optimal performance.

Experts recommend adults get eight to ten hours of sleep per night, but repeated studies show the average figure is closer to seven. But the thing is, if you continue to deprive yourself of sleep over the course of days or weeks there can be serious, lasting effects.

Losing sleep doesn’t only give you baggy eyes and a grumpy disposition; sleep deprivation may cause more serious physical and psychological health conditions. Here are some examples of what can happen when sleep deprivation takes a turn for the worse, plus some tips to stay on top of your sleep health.

Sleep deprivation psychosis

Pulling an all-nighter to party or study might sound like a good or necessary idea, but the sleep you miss out on can lead to symptoms that are similar to those of  schizophrenia. Patients diagnosed with schizophrenia experience profound delusions, misinterpretations of space and time, and alternate realities. When your body is deprived of sleep, you can feel confused, chaotic, overwhelmed by stimuli, sensitive to light and sound, and other shared symptoms of schizophrenia.

Psychiatry resident at the University of Utah, Christian Maurer, MD, says, “Sleep is the foundation of wellness. The relationship is complex, for poorer sleep quality is clearly associated with mood disturbances. A dangerous cycle can develop when sleep is compromised.”

There is no evidence that shows sleep disorders cause mental illness, but according to Dr. Maurer, sleep deprivation can cause more serious problems with your overall wellbeing. The bottom line is that if you don’t want to feel completely out of sorts, you should focus on getting quality sleep and see your doctor immediately if you’ve noticed any changes in your physical or mental health.

Depression

People with insomnia are ten times more likely to develop depression that those who are well rested. Several other variables contribute to the development of depression, including feeling lonely when you’re awake and everyone else is asleep and lack of exercise.

Keith Johnson, MD, psychiatry resident at the University of Utah, witnesses the complicated association between lack of sleep and mental illness every day. He says, “My first approach to treating depression is to make sure patients have healthy eating habits and have good sleep behavior. Poor sleep can mimic the symptoms of depression, like poor concentration, low energy, and low mood. Sleep deprivation can make patients hallucinate and can be as dangerous as drunk driving. Poor sleep also makes depression more difficult to treat.”

Once again, it’s not yet proven that lack of sleep directly causes depression, but there is a correlation between the debilitating illness and chronic sleep problems.

Lower cognitive function

Perhaps Dopey wasn’t getting any sleep either. Ever feel groggy and unfocused when you wake up in the middle of the night or go to sleep way past your bedtime? That’s because losing sleep impacts your thinking  in addition to language processing and memory performance.

Your neurons—which are responsible for relaying and processing messages throughout your body—fire incorrectly and other parts of the brain try to pick up the slack, leading to further fatigue, slower thinking, and more mistakes. You may have encountered this issue yourself when you’re tired; you lose eloquence, response time, and clarity. Sleep is like a tune-up for your brain, so you’ll feel all the wiser when you wake up after a good night’s snooze.

Compromised immune system

Forget orange juice—more sleep may be the cure for the common cold. When your body is tired, germs attack. In fact, one study found that when participants slept six hours or less during the cold incubation period—the time when they were exposed to germs for seven days—were four times more likely to contract a cold than those who slept more than seven hours per night.

When you rest, you naturally release and regulate cytokines and antibodies to patrol your body and keep pathogens out. Without sleep, your body doesn’t have time to regenerate and bolster immune cells, leaving you more susceptible to the effects of bacteria and viruses.

Health and Wellness Director with Sleepys, Sarah Brown, recommends that, “People who are short on sleep due to strenuous jobs, family life, or sickness should boost their immune systems with daily vitamins and zinc. Doing so will help your body protect itself better during a vulnerable time. When possible, get enough sleep. It’s the best medicine to keep your body healthy.”

Practical strategies to avoid sleep deprivation

It’s not always easy to get enough sleep, but with the following slight changes to your lifestyle, you can get better-quality slumber.

Moderate your caffeine intake

That post-dinner cappuccino might be the perfect drink to end your day, but ingesting caffeine within six hours of bedtime can reduce total nighttime ZZZs by one hour.9 Over the course of one week, you could lose a full-night’s sleep if you keep up this pattern. If you love caffeinated beverages, limit them to morning and early afternoon hours and switch to decaf or herbal tea after 5:00 p.m.

Turn off electronics

Bringing your smartphone to bed or watching TV until it’s time to hit the hay severely obstructs sleep. It’s not because of the riveting Facebook posts you’re reading or cliffhanger reality shows, but because of the blue light that’s emitted from the screens.

The scientific explanation centers on the fact that blue light is a short wavelength and messes with your body’s ability to create melatonin—a chemical released to regulate sleep. In fact, blue light suppresses melatonin production by eighty-five percent.10 Blue light keeps you awake longer and hurts your REM cycle, a critical sleeping period that deeply restores the brain and body. Treat electronics like caffeine, and switch them off a few hours before bedtime to ensure you get quality sleep—and enough of it.

Exercise

You’ll be pleasantly surprised to learn that exercise can help you sleep better. In a sixteen-week study of adults with insomnia, doctors found that aerobic exercise improved sleep quality and mood. 11 Experts advise you get your heart pumping during the morning or afternoon hours—leaving the evening free to relax and come down from your exercise high. Otherwise, you might be awake longer than you’d like from the adrenaline.

Check your meds

Medications like beta-blockers, alpha-blockers, and corticosteroids can stave off other illnesses and problems but will keep you awake at night. If you’re on medication for certain short term or chronic illnesses, talk to your doctor about a treatment option that won’t interfere with your sleep.

Get into a routine

Your parents probably set a bedtime for you when you were a kid, but you may have fallen out of that habit. The National Sleep Foundation says that giving yourself a bedtime now can enhance your quality of sleep. When possible, limit naps and go to bed and get up at the same time each day. Your circadian rhythms will realign, and you’ll find yourself getting sleepy when it’s time to go to bed and waking up refreshed in the morning.

To avoid issues such as those mentioned above, make sleep a priority, and get the recommended eight to ten hours of quality sleep each night. Your body and brain will be better for it!

References

1 Coren, Stanley. Sleep Deprivation, Psychosis and Mental Efficiency. March 1, 1998

2 Universität Bonn Sleep deprivation leads to symptoms of schizophrenia, research shows. Science Daily. July 7, 2014

3 Maurer, Christian. Interviewed by Caroline Maurer. In-person interview. Salt Lake City, Utah, May 15, 2017.

4 Taylor DJ, Lichstein KL, Durrence HH, Reidel BW, Bush AJ. Epidemiology of insomnia, depression, and anxiety. November 28, 2005. PMID:16335332.

5 Johnson, Keith. Interviewed by Caroline Maurer. In-person interview. Salt Lake City, Utah, May 15, 2017.

6 University of California San Diego School of Medicine. Brain Activity Is Visibly Altered Following Sleep Deprivation. February 10, 2000.

7 Luciana Besedovsky, PhD, Jan Born, PhD; Sleep, Don’t Sneeze: Longer Sleep Reduces the Risk of Catching a Cold. Sleep 2015; 38 (9): 1341-1342. doi:10.5665/sleep.4958

8 Sarah Brown, Health and Wellness Director with Sleepys. Interviewed by Caroline Maurer. In-person interview. Salt Lake City, Utah, May 15, 2017.

9 Christopher Drake, Ph.D., F.A.A.S.M.1,2; Timothy Roehrs, Ph.D., F.A.A.S.M.1,2; John Shambroom, B.S.3; Thomas Roth, Ph.D.1 . Caffeine Effects on Sleep Taken 0, 3, or 6 Hours before Going to Bed. 2013. doi:10.5664/jcsm.3170

10 Joshua J. Gooley  Kyle Chamberlain  Kurt A. Smith  Sat Bir S. Khalsa Shantha M. W. Rajaratnam  Eliza Van Reen  Jamie M. Zeitzer  Charles A. Czeisler Steven W. Lockley. Exposure to Room Light before Bedtime Suppresses Melatonin Onset and Shortens Melatonin Duration in Humans. March 1, 2011. doi:10.1210/jc.2010-2098

11  Kathryn J. Reid, PhD, Kelly Glazer Baron, PhD, Brandon Lu, MD, Erik Naylor, PhD, Lisa Wolfe, MD, and Phyllis C. Zee, MD, PhD. Aerobic exercise improves self-reported sleep and quality of life in older adults with insomnia. September 1, 2010. doi:10.1016/j.sleep.2010.04.014

 

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Hilary Thompson

Hilary is a health and wellness consultant and journalist based in Utah. She’s written for publications like Today, PurposeFairy, KSL News, and Girls’ Life, and she’s been quoted for her expertise in publications like Reader’s Digest, Mamapedia, and Best Life. She specializes in sleep technology and science, family health and wellness and sleep disorders.