Does Sleep Deprivation Cause Early Death?

Is your work, TV, or smartphone taking precedence over your shut-eye night after night?

Many people worry about their diet, exercise regime or alcohol consumption without considering at all how sleep deprivation affects their health. Not having enough sleep attacks the biological functions at the heart of physical and mental health. In fact, countless studies and reviews of these studies have all shown sleep deprivation lead to an early grave.

What is sleep deprivation doing to your body? How much sleep do really need? What are the signs that you're over-tired? How can you get better sleep? Read on to find out.


What Does Sleep Deprivation Do to Your Body?

Weakened Immune System

Researchers have found that young men who do not get enough sleep have elevated levels of the white blood cells, particularly "granulocytes." These white blood cells are responsible for responding to a threat to the body’s immune system.

But why would your body see sleep deprivation as an attack on your health?

While you’re asleep, your body takes care of all of the regenerative jobs needed to keep it healthy. Without sleep, these regeneration processes aren't completed, and that makes you more likely to get sick and stay sick, or have a slow healing time for any injuries you may have.

Increased Stroke Risk

Getting less than six hours of sleep a night also increases your risk of stroke – regardless of your age or how healthy you otherwise might be! The reason behind this finding is not clear, but scientists suspect that chronic sleep deprivation raises blood pressure and heart rate, and affects blood sugar levels. All of these factors can contribute to chronic inflammation of your organ systems and may cause strokes.

Premature Aging

Lack of sleep reduces the amount of human growth hormone your body releases. Human growth hormone is responsible for, as you may guess, helping you grow when you’re young. However, once you stop growing, human growth hormone then takes on the task of maintaining your body’s muscle mass, thickening skin and keeping bones strong. If you don’t have enough of this hormone running through your body, you will deteriorate at a quicker rate.

Cardiovascular Disease

The way sleep deprivation negatively affects the heart is one of the most well-documented ways a lack of sleep can harm you. Lack of sleep inflames the cardiovascular system, promotes cholesterol plaques and leads to atherosclerosis. For these reasons, people who suffer from chronic lack of sleep have double the risk of death from cardiovascular disease.

Obesity & Diabetes

Not getting enough sleep can lead to weight gain in a number of ways. It makes you too tired to get enough exercise, more inclined to over eat, and affects the hormones that control your metabolism. When your body isn’t resting well, it is unable to metabolise fat or regulate blood sugar levels adequately, which causes heightened levels of fatty acids in the blood. All of these effects heighten your risk of developing Type 2 diabetes and getting, well, fatter.

Mental Health

Mental health is one of the first faculties affected by sleep deprivation. The negative impacts sleep deprivation has on mental health can range from disordered thought, irrationality, drops in cognitive function and memory loss through to social incompetence, incoherent speech, hallucinations and even complete breaks with reality. This makes you more likely to make poor decisions which will put you at risk.


How Much Sleep Do I Need?

Your sleep requirements will vary depending on what stage of your life you are in. There’s no “magic number” of hours, but the Australian Centre for Education in Sleep recommends the following guidelines:

  • Babies under 1: 14-18 hours throughout the day and night
  • Toddlers: 12-14 hours per 24 hour period
  • Primary school: 10-12 hours per day
  • High school: 8-10 hours per day
  • Adults: 7-9 hours per day

How Can I Tell If I’m Sleep Deprived?

Are you feeling unusually hungry? One of the first signs of sleep deprivation is an increased appetite. As you get over-tired, your body produces more of the hunger hormone called “ghrelin” and less of the satiating hormone called “leptin”– this is your brain trying to use food to recover the energy it isn’t getting from sleep. So you’re more likely to binge on high-calorie foods when you are tired. The result? A fatter you.

Have you noticed your inhibitions lowering? A University of Oxford study* has found that being tired is a lot like being drunk. When you’re too tired, you become more impulsive, your judgement is skewed, and you find yourself exerting less control over your behaviour. These lowered inhibitions may take the form of being snippy with a friend, finding it difficult to say no to people, or even making poor decisions at work.

Are there things you just keep forgetting? Memory is one of the first mental functions to hit the wall when you’ve missed out on sleep. When you're tired, not only does your attention lag when you see something you should remember, but your brain doesn’t get the “consolidation” time it uses when you’re sleeping to store your memories.

Have you been feeling indecisive? As stated above, sleep deprivation can affect how fast you can think and your other cognitive processes. If you’re too tired, you can forget about all the faculties you need to make decisions related to problem-solving, time management and emerging crises.

Are you unusually uncoordinated? If you’re fumbling, dropping things, or tripping over a few times a day you might be too tired to concentrate on what your body is doing.

What about just feeling generally crazy? The fact that everybody gets cranky when they are tired is not exactly big news. However, most people don’t realise that the effects of sleep deprivation can also go the other way, triggering all sorts of out of control emotions, including sadness, happiness, anxiety, and excitement to full-blown psychosis.

Have you been feeling under the weather for a while now? Because lack of sleep takes a toll on your immune system, if you're sleep-deprived you’ll not only be more susceptible to getting illnesses like the common cold, but you’ll find them harder to shake. In fact, scientists have discovered that people who get less than seven hours of sleep a night are three times more likely to get a cold than well-rested people.

Is your vision out of whack? Fatigue makes your eyelids droop and significantly lowers your ability to control your eye's muscles. Which eye muscles? Well, the one that makes your eye focus (the ciliary muscle), the ones that move your eyes around (the extra ocular muscles). If your vision is blurring, or you often see double, this might mean you need to get to bed earlier.

Are you getting wrinkly and pimply? Your body produces collagen – the protein that keeps your skin looking lush and plump – while you sleep. Your hormones also get regulated while you sleep, and studies have shown those with less sleep have less skin recovery and more estrogen levels in the blood. Higher estrogen + less collagen = bad skin.


How to Get More Sleep

Below are a few pointers to help you get your sleeping patterns under control:

  • Set a bed-time and stick to it! Going to bed at the same time every night will train your body to rest when you need it to and will help you fall asleep faster.
  • Spend time in the daylight and turn off your screens at least 30 minutes before going to bed. The amount of light your eyes are exposed to, and when you take this light in, are the factors your body’s “master clock” relies on to set itself. This master clock is then responsible for setting your body’s other biological clocks, which is why it's so important to have it working properly!
  • If sleep is a constant concern for you, consider getting a sleep apnoea test. According to Snore Australia, “Around 9% of women and 25% of men in Australia have clinically significant obstructive sleep apnoea and 4% of men and women have symptomatic obstructive sleep apnoea.” You don't have to be overweight or old to be affected by sleep apnoea, so don't be embarrassed. Getting checked could really improve your quality of life!
  • Exercise! Being physically exhausted triggers a plethora of hormonal responses designed to put you to sleep.
  • Cut back on consuming caffeine after lunch.
  • Put together a list of relaxing activities you can do – even for just fifteen minutes – before you go to sleep. Choose one every night and do it without fail.
  • Wait until you start yawning before you go to sleep. Yawns are your body telling your brain that it’s ready to sleep, and it’s important you don’t ignore the first batch of yawns you have.

* The document for this study has since been removed.

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