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The Surprising Side Effects of Sleep Deprivation

January 1st, 2023 | 3 min. read

By Jim Burford, M.D.

What are the effects of sleep deprivation?

Sleep is your body’s opportunity for restoration. As you snooze through the night, many of your body’s organs are hard at work preparing the body for the next day.

Only recently has research been done that shows how essential it is that your body has the proper amount of time to do this work. Regular, high-quality sleep restores the body, renews the immune system, and purges the brain of waste products.

Thanks to recent research, it’s now clear that the body does some very important things during sleep. But how does it do these things? What can happen if you don’t get enough sleep, and how can you get higher-quality sleep?

What really happens when you sleep?

When you sleep, your body is busy manufacturing white blood cells, which it will use in the battle against infection and illness. This is why it’s helpful to get extra sleep when you come down with a cold or the flu.

Your body also uses sleep to produce cholesterol. In fact, the body only produces cholesterol during sleep, which is why cholesterol medications should be taken before bedtime.

One of the many other functions of sleep is the powerful process your brain goes through. Rather than going offline, your brain experiences several cleansing stages of the sleep cycle that help you file away memories, thoughts, and experiences.

Tired woman at home in bed during the day

What are the side effects of sleep deprivation?

A lack of good, regular sleep can lead to a number of significant challenges. Studies have shown that not prioritizing sleep can lead to impaired immune and mental function, mental and physical errors, and slower reaction times.

Can a lack of sleep make you gain weight? Yes, recent studies have shown a strong correlation between sleep deprivation and obesity.

During sleep, the body works to restore normal energy levels. When you don’t sleep long enough to restore energy, your body will demand excess food consumption to make up the difference.

The low energy reflects a low-functioning metabolism, creating a dangerous cycle of exhaustion and overeating. To make things worse, obesity contributes to sleep apnea, which can make it even more difficult to experience restorative sleep.

It can be common for people to seek help in the form of medication if they’ve gone a while without sleeping well. Unfortunately, many of the components found in products intended to treat chronic sleep disorders have been found to increase the risk of dementia in senior citizens.

Furthermore, studies done on shift workers who alternate between sleeping during the day and sleeping at night have shown that shift workers suffer chronic illnesses and die prematurely for various reasons, at a rate that is statistically higher than those who work a normal shift. This is another clear example of how important regular sleep can be for your long-term health.

How much should you sleep?

The short answer is that you should sleep between seven and 10 hours nightly, depending on your age, and practice sleep hygiene. Sleep hygiene refers to the practice of maintaining a comfortable environment where sleep comes easily to you.

First, set the stage for restorative sleep by maintaining a cool temperature in your bedroom. Then make sure you have absolute darkness in your room by outfitting your windows with light-blocking curtains.

When you go to bed, make sure you provide yourself with plenty of time to fall asleep and still get seven to nine hours before your alarm goes off.

If at all possible, sleep without an alarm and wake up at the same time every morning. Select a time that fits with your lifestyle and make that part of your routine, both on weekdays and weekends. Do this so that your body will readjust to your sleep schedule.

After waking up at the same time every day, you will notice spontaneous feelings of drowsiness at the time that you’ve been going to bed. This is a great sign that your body is accepting your new, restorative sleep schedule.

PartnerMD Members: Get Better Sleep with Wellness University

About half of American adults report feeling sleepy during the day and 35% of adults get fewer than 7 hours of sleep per night. In other words, if you're having trouble sleeping, you're not alone. 

You’ve probably tried almost everything to get better sleep. We can help. That’s why we created Wellness University – to teach you how to get the rest you need to live a healthy lifestyle.

Jim Burford, M.D.