The Short and Long-Term Effects of Sleep Deprivation on Our Health

I love proverbs. These short expressions of popular wisdom never steer me wrong. They’re easy to remember and the following one has to do with two of my favorite things: laughter and sleep.

A good laugh and a long sleep are the best cures in the doctor’s book.
~ Irish Proverb

Sadly, though, we often lack the first and neglect the second!

I was plagued by severe insomnia for years. Night after night, for years on end, I’d struggle to get to sleep (sleep onset insomnia), or, when I fell asleep easily, I’d wake up sometime later, then toss and turn, frequently for hours (sleep maintenance insomnia.) Towards the early morning hours, I’d finally doze off, sometimes falling into a deep, deep sleep, only to have the alarm wake me a short time later. I’d drag myself out of bed, feeling like I’d been in a boxing match…body aching, muffle-headed and completely out-of-sorts.

Not being one to rush off to the doctor for a prescription, I turned to home remedies. Some of them helped, but none of them were even close to a total cure. When I think back, I’m astounded at my own lack of initiative to solve this very real, debilitating and life-threatening problem. I knew it was taking a big toll on my health, but in some sad, sick way I carried my lack of sleep like a badge of honor.

Women often try to impress each other by talking about how much they do on how little sleep!

This is pure insanity; not something to be proud of at all. Chances are that whatever you were doing instead of sleeping was not as necessary as the sleep you gave up. And I bet that the following day, you were far from playing your top game without the necessary regenerative sleep.

Short-term effects from cheating sleep are many: sheer exhaustion, shorter attention span, increased drowsiness, marked irritability, lowered morale, reduced creativity, diminished patience, less focus, increased risk of accidents, poor short-term memory, higher stress, impaired immune system, visible skin impairment – especially around the eyes — increased headaches and body aches.

After just one night of staying up, sleep deprivation will give many people a buzz, causing them to feel temporary euphoria. I remember as a college student and later as a business owner, when I’d pull an “all-nighter” to get work done. I would feel pumped and energized the following day…at least for the first half of the day.

This buzz is due to an increase in brain dopamine, a catecholamine neurotransmitter sometimes referred to as the “pleasure neurotransmitter.” Dopamine affects brain processes that control movement, emotional response, and our ability to experience pleasure and pain.

Dopamine is also a building block for the production of adrenaline in our bodies, which stimulates us into action when we’re frightened or anxious. Like a sugar high, we feel temporarily charged with increased energy, but when dopamine levels drop, we crash, feel empty and deflated.

A recent US Army study on sleep deprivation determined that the loss of just one and a half hours of sleep can result in a 32% reduction in daytime alertness!

That’s a significant reduction in alertness! I’ll never forget one hectic morning many years ago following several very poor nights of “sleep.” As I dressed, I was aware of my lack of focus and attention, fumbling with buttons, forgetting where I’d placed my car keys, having a hard time absorbing my husband’s answers to questions I’d just asked.

Late for a meeting, I rushed out the back door, through the yard and into the garage via the open garage bay door where Jim’s car was still parked. I hopped into my SUV, turned the key, threw the car into reverse…and promptly drove my car into the still closed door of my garage bay! KABLAM!

Fortunately, the garage door was very sturdy – an old, heavy, wooden one that held up, despite my crashing into it. Damage to the door amounted to a crack across the center; damage to my car’s bumper was also minor. Damage to my self-esteem, however, was not so minor! I was embarrassed, but also extremely rattled by the realization that something much worse could have happened. My husband, who’d watched the whole thing from our upstairs bedroom window, was already at the back door (chuckling!) when I ran back into the house, shaken and in tears!

Even then, I knew that my lack of sleep had contributed to my poor mood, impaired motor coordination, erratic energy and total lack of focus. What a wake-up call that day was – no pun intended!

When we get less sleep than we need only occasionally, and promptly get back on track by getting 7.5 to 8 hours of sleep per night – we won’t suffer any long-term negative effects.

However, how many of us are regularly getting 7.5 to 8 hours of sleep each night?

According to Sleepdex.org, a website dedicated to raising awareness of sleep issues and encouraging people to take sleep seriously, “A person who loses one night’s sleep will generally be irritable and clumsy during the next day and will either become tired easily or speed up because of adrenalin. After missing two night’s sleep, a person will have problems concentrating and will begin to make mistakes on normal tasks. Three missed nights and a person will start to hallucinate and lose grasp of reality.”

Continuing, the website states: “Someone who gets just a few hours of sleep each night incurs a large “sleep debt” and can begin to experience many problems over time. A 1997 study found that people whose sleep was restricted to 4 to 5 hours per night for one week needed two full nights of sleep to recover performance, alertness and normal mood.”

We all think we can just “make-up” for lost sleep whenever we decide it’s necessary.

Although it’s possible to make-up occasional lost sleep, if we are chronic “sleep cheaters,” we’ll never catch-up and the toll on our health will be considerable.

Serious long-term consequences for ongoing sleep reduction (anything under that magic number of 7.5 hours per night) are heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke and diabetes. These are all diseases associated with aging. Hence, it makes perfect sense to add pre-mature physical aging to this list of long-term consequences. In addition, mood disorders including depression, weight loss or more commonly weight gain and even obesity, and increased risk of mortality can come from lack of sleep over an extended period of time.

An October 25, 1999 article from ScienceDaily.com states: “Chronic sleep loss can reduce the capacity of even young adults to perform basic metabolic functions such as processing and storing carbohydrates or regulating hormone secretion, report researchers from the University of Chicago Medical Center in the October 23 issue of The Lancet. Cutting back from the standard eight down to four hours of sleep each night produced striking changes in glucose tolerance and endocrine function — changes that resembled the effects of advanced age or the early stages of diabetes — after less than one week.

Lack of sleep is directly connected to the increase of cortisol production in our bodies. Increased cortisol circulating in your blood creates a rise in blood sugar and fat storage. Midlife women are especially susceptible to the effects of cortisol, a stress hormone, on our health. Cortisol is also associated with the reduction of muscle mass, increased bone loss and osteoporosis, increased fat accumulation around the waist and hips, as well as reduced ability to generate new skin cells.

Have you noticed the midriff bulge that’s built-up on your mid-section, even though you don’t eat any more than you used to? If so, you’ll want to pay close attention to your sleep patterns. Not getting enough sleep may be tied to your weight gain because less sleep equals less muscle and bone so you can’t burn calories as efficiently as you did 5, 10, 20 years ago.

Less sleep also equals less energy during the day. A common response is to eat something for a quick pick-me-up, even though your body may not truly need the extra calories, which then get stored as body fat. The foods we crave when our energy level drops are the worst choices – sweets or refined carbs with little nutritional value. And because we’re tired, we tend to do more sedentary activities, which also burn fewer calories.

The good news is that the payoffs for regularly getting the recommended amount of sleep are huge and immediate, too!

Getting a minimum of 7.5 to 8 hours of sleep each night has been proven to help LOSE WEIGHT! Many of the reasons we gain weight when we don’t get enough sleep are reversed when we do: fewer waking hours means fewer cravings, less snacking, less excess cortisol so fat-storing is not triggered, more energy during the day means more physical activity.

Getting a good night’s sleep may not be as easy as it sounds. But I guarantee that getting the right amount of good, quality sleep is absolutely worth the effort and commitment. Next week, I’ll share some proven approaches and tips on how to get more sleep into your life.

If you are ready to be inspired, supported, motivated and encouraged to create a life to love, and to receive a FREE, 45 minute Coaching Consultation, I invite you to contact me at (856) 854-7393 or eileen@midlifeandmenopausecoach.com. I will get back to you promptly, usually within 24 hours.

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