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If you’ve ever spent a night tossing and turning, you already know how you’ll feel the next day — tired, cranky, and out of sorts. But missing out on the recommended 7 to 9 hours of shut-eye nightly does more than make you feel groggy and grumpy.
The long-term effects of sleep deprivation are real.
It drains your mental abilities and puts your physical health at real risk. Science has linked poor slumber with a number of health problems, from weight gain to a weakened immune system.
Read on to learn how it affects specific body functions and systems.
Central nervous system
Your central nervous system is the main information highway of your body. Sleep is necessary to keep it functioning properly, but chronic insomnia can disrupt how your body usually sends and processes information. During sleep, pathways form between nerve cells (neurons) in your brain that help you remember new information you’ve learned. Sleep deprivation leaves your brain exhausted, so it can’t perform its duties as well.
You may also find it more difficult to concentrate or learn new things. The signals your body sends may also be delayed, decreasing your coordination and increasing your risk for accidents.
While you sleep, your immune system produces protective, infection-fighting substances like antibodies and cytokines. It uses these substances to combat foreign invaders such as bacteria and viruses.
Certain cytokines also help you to sleep, giving your immune system more efficiency to defend your body against illness.
Sleep deprivation prevents your immune system from building up its forces. If you don’t get enough sleep, your body may not be able to fend off invaders, and it may also take you longer to recover from illness.
Long-term sleep deprivation also increases your risk for chronic conditions, such as diabetes mellitus and heart disease.
The relationship between sleep and the respiratory system goes both ways. A nighttime breathing disorder called obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) can interrupt your sleep and lower sleep quality.
As you wake up throughout the night, this can cause sleep deprivation, which leaves you more vulnerable to respiratory infections like the common cold and flu. Sleep deprivation can also make existing respiratory diseases worse, such as chronic lung illness.
Along with eating too much and not exercising, sleep deprivation is another risk factor for becoming overweight and obese. Sleep affects the levels of two hormones, leptin, and ghrelin, which control feelings of hunger and fullness.
Leptin tells your brain that you’ve had enough to eat. Without enough sleep, your brain reduces leptin and raises ghrelin, which is an appetite stimulant. The flux of these hormones could explain nighttime snacking or why someone may overeat later in the night.
Peri, C. (n.d.). 10 Surprising Effects of Lack of Sleep. WebMD. https://www.webmd.com/sleep-disorders/features/10-results-sleep-loss.
NHS. (n.d.). NHS Choices. https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/sleep-and-tiredness/why-lack-of-sleep-is-bad-for-your-health/.
Nazario, B. (2020, August 24). How Much Sleep Do I Need? WebMD. https://www.webmd.com/sleep-disorders/sleep-requirements.