Can Lack of Sleep Make You Sick?

Learn how sleep deprivation can have an affect on your immune system and overall health

By Sheryl Grassie

Have you ever wondered if your poor sleeping habits are making you sick? Short-term, sleep deprivation can decrease immune function and cause mental disruption. Long-term, it can produce chronic physical and psychological disorders.

Is Lack of Sleep Compromising Your Health and Wellbeing?

The lack of sleep that many of us experience is commonplace in modern society. It has detrimental effects and may actually be the underlying cause of a number of acute and chronic health conditions. It is easy to associate a bad night’s sleep with feeling ill-tempered the next day, but it may also be the reason you have a craving for carbohydrates. It can also contribute to a low sex drive, or cause memory loss.

Studies indicate that lack of sleep is a factor in a substantial number of accidents, from car accidents caused by drowsy driving to major incidents like oil spills and nuclear events.

Short-term and Long-term Effects of Sleep Deprivation

Lack of sleep is connected to a number of short-term and long-term conditions. Short-term lack of sleep can lower immune function making it easier to get sick from viruses. Longer-term effects can include increased risk for serious illnesses like stroke, cardiovascular disease, and high blood pressure.

Poor sleep can lead to depression, mood swings, decreased cognitive function, weight gain, obesity and even infertility. Conversely, getting the proper amount of sleep is associated with feelings of euphoria, the ability to be conscious and alert during the day, normalized appetite, a healthy libido, and decreased health complaints.

A lack of sleep literally impacts the body at all levels. From head to toe, there can be consequences to our functioning. Here is a quick overview.

Mental and emotional:

  • Poor concentration
  • Memory loss
  • Poor judgement
  • Mood swings
  • Poor impulse control
  • Low self-esteem
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Increased magical thinking
  • Loss of empathy

Internal systems:

  • Lowered Immunity
  • Higher blood pressure
  • Weight gain and obesity
  • Diabetes
  • Hormone imbalances
  • Poor coordination

Internal organs

  • Cardio vascular disease
  • Low sex drive and lowered testosterone

How Much Sleep is Enough?

The first question is, “How much sleep do we need?” In general, we need less sleep as we age. Babies can sleep 15-17 hours per day, toddlers and preschoolers 10-14 hours. Elementary school children need between 9-11 hours, and adolescents 8-10 hours per day. For adults the recommendation is a solid 7-9 hours per night, with a slight decrease after age 65.

The problem is, we can’t always get the recommended amount. Trouble sleeping, sleep apnea, a snoring partner, noise from neighbors or traffic, all influence how well we sleep. Some people have poor sleep habits like eating too close to bedtime or too much screen time in the evening. Travel schedules, changing work hours, taking work home, as well as too much stress can all compromise quality and duration of sleep.

At what point should lack of sleep become a concern?

Research indicates that anything less than the recommended 7-9 hours for adults can result in a “sleep debt.” For example, if you only sleep six hours a night, at the end of one week you will be short at least one hour per night or seven hours for the week. If that pattern continues, over time you would accumulate a substantial sleep deficit or sleep debt. If the pattern lasted for six months you would “owe yourself” or have a sleep debt of 182 hours.

Most of us just brush off our inadequate sleep, but the sleep deprived state has serious implications for health and should be addressed. Sleep debt can be paid back by sleeping additional hours, like sleeping in on the weekends.

Let’s take the example above and assume a 182-hour deficit. If you committed to sleep at least the recommended seven hours, and added an additional hour a night for payback, you can assume eight hours of sleep a night. If you managed to sleep this much nightly, it would still take you six months to pay back the debt. If lack of sleep can make you sick, it seems that adding more sleep can make you well and should be addressed on an ongoing basis.

Diagnosis and Treatment

Simply setting a goal to get more sleep may sound easy. But whatever is causing the lack of sleep in the first place must be addressed. The first step is to discover the cause of your sleep issues. Work with your doctor to get a better understanding of any underlying conditions, or sleep disorders, like sleep apnea, poor sleep hygiene, allergies, or mold.

Does your partner snore and keep you awake? Does your mind race and keep you awake? Are you tossing and turning on an old mattress? Figure out why you are not getting enough sleep so you can work to rectify the problem.

What kinds of treatments are available to help with sleep?

There are two main interventions for sleep improvement, medical/supplementation and cognitive/lifestyle. You can go to your doctor and get a prescription to help you fall asleep or stay asleep. You can similarly go to the pharmacy or health food store and get melatonin or valerian root or other natural sleep remedies to be taken orally.

Depending on what is causing your lack of sleep, you can also try mediation, various relaxation techniques, cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), or practice good sleep hygiene like getting sunlight during the day, turning lights low in the evening, and sleeping in a cool dark room. All these treatments and lifestyle changes can improve quality of sleep.

Summary

A lack of sleep can make you sick. It can have short or long-term consequences resulting in increased vulnerability to colds and flu, or increased chances of life threatening illnesses like heart disease and high blood pressure. Lack of sleep can have a major effect on mood and mental functioning. The cumulative effect of too little sleep is a sleep debt, which needs to be corrected. The cure is more sleep and there are ways to support that happening through medical intervention or lifestyle changes.


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