What are the worst effects of sleep deprivation?

The occasional sleepless night is the norm for most people. According to a recent survey, 70% of adults in the United States have at least one disturbed night of sleep per month, while 11% struggle to get enough sleep each night.

Common symptoms associated with intermittent sleepless nights are uncomfortable and unpleasant – with ataxia and low mood being the most common.

But if left untreated, chronic sleep deprivation can have more serious consequences that can affect everything from work performance to memory, and even make us more susceptible to disease in the long run.

Here’s a look at why sleep deprivation happens, the worst effects of sleep deprivation and how to get better sleep.

What causes sleep deprivation?

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Sleep deprivation occurs when a person does not get enough 7-9 hours of sleep each night for an extended period of time. Several factors can throw off our sleep patterns and cause us to wake up at night, ranging from stress at work to anxiety issues or bedtime habits that contribute to poor sleep quality.

Some sleep disturbances may also lead to sleep deprivation. Some of the sleep disturbances that can lead to sleep deprivation include:

insomnia One of the most common sleep disorders, insomnia is defined as a persistent problem with falling asleep and staying asleep. Symptoms can include waking up in the middle of the night, waking up too early, worrying about being able to sleep and being tired during the day.

Circadian rhythm disorders These sleep disturbances occur when our environment does not match our body’s circadian rhythm, making us awake when the light goes out and sleep when it’s dark. People who work night shifts or go to work when it is dark still have this disorder more commonly.

Sleep Apnea The most common respiratory sleep disorder, obstructive sleep apnea, occurs when a person’s breathing passage is affected during sleep due to a blockage. This disorder results in interrupted sleep, in which a person with obstructive sleep disorder wakes up several times a night when they are unable to breathe.

Effects of sleep deprivation

Woman sitting awake in the bedroom
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Many components of our bodies require that we regularly get enough sleep each night. When we don’t, our body fails to function mentally, physically, and emotionally. Here are the worst effects of sleep deprivation.

Memory problems: Think back to the time you’d spend all night in high school or college before the big test. You probably managed to pass the test – but can you remember anything you learned during that time a week or even months later? To retain information acquired during waking hours, the brain needs sufficient sleep to process and remember it. Sleeping 7-9 hours each night has been shown to improve memory by 20-40 percent.

overweightChronic sleep deprivation means you’re likely to lack the energy to exercise consistently — one of the ways sleep deprivation contributes to unwanted weight gain. Another way that sleep deprivation contributes to weight gain has to do with levels of the hormones leptin and ghrelin that are affected by lack of sleep.

During a meal, leptin sends signals to our brains that our bodies are full. Lack of adequate sleep causes the body to produce less leptin and more ghrelin, which increases appetite. Sleep-deprived people may feel hungry at night, due to an imbalance of these hormones.

Low sex drive: Sleep deprivation also affects sexual desire. When we don’t get enough sleep, hormones like testosterone cannot be produced in the body. Testosterone production occurs during the body’s deepest sleep cycle, called REM sleep. If you are constantly waking up in the middle of the night or you are a chronically light sleeper, this will reduce the production of testosterone in the body. While this hormone is usually associated with male sex drive, a lack of testosterone in the female body will also reduce sexual desire.

More errors and accidentsSleep is essential to keep your body’s central nervous system working efficiently. Sleep deprivation causes disruptions in the way the body processes information. This can lead to small scale issues such as frequent errors in the work. More seriously, reduced reaction and processing time due to sleep deprivation can be life or death. For example, people who sleep six hours or less each night are three times more likely to have a car accident.

Depression and negative mood swings: Not getting enough rest can make a person more irritable and moody — but over time, sleep deprivation can lead to more severe depressive episodes. Depression and anxiety rates are significantly higher in those who don’t get enough sleep regularly.

How to avoid sleep deprivation

Texting in bed on a cell phone
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The best way to avoid sleep deprivation is to get the recommended 7-9 hours of sleep each night. This is easier said than done for many who have trouble sleeping. Here are some tips to keep in mind if you find yourself constantly tossing around at night.

Stick to a scheduleAlthough it can be tempting to fall asleep over the weekend, sticking to a sleep schedule where you go to bed at the same time every night and wake up at the same time every morning helps get your body into a healthy sleep routine.

Avoid spending time in front of screens before bed: At least two hours before bed, do your best to limit screen time because the light emitted by electronic devices can disrupt your circadian rhythm.

Participate in relaxing activities before bed: Take some time to meditate, listen to music, or take a long bath or shower before bed to relax.

Avoid naps: Even if you’ve had a sleepless night, getting past the urge to nap will help you sleep through the night instead of causing another restless evening.


woman head sleeping on pillow
(Photo by Lux Graves on Unsplash)

Not getting enough sleep each night can have a hugely detrimental effect on our overall health and well-being over time. If getting the recommended 7-9 hours of sleep per night has always been a challenge, it is helpful to evaluate your bedtime routine and daily habits to see what may be contributing to your lack of sleep.

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