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Why Lack of Sleep Affects Your Health

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woman-sleeping-on-pcLack of sleep is a commonplace occurrence with many Americans. Lack of sleep can have serious consequences on the ability to think, handle stress, moderate emotions and maintain a healthy immune system. Lack of sleep impacts your levels of thyroid and stress hormones, which in turn can affect your memory, immune system, heart and metabolism, and more. Common symptoms of lack of sleep include irritability, fatigue and blurred vision.

Lack of Sleep - Health Effects

The following are the results of what can happen when lack of sleep occurs over an extended period of time.

Health Risks due to Lack of Sleep

  • Increased risk of cancer by altering the balance of hormones in your body. Melatonin is an antioxidant that helps to suppress harmful free radicals in your body and slows the production of estrogen, which can activate cancer. When your circadian rhythm is disrupted with lack of sleep, your body may produce less melatonin and therefore have less ability to fight cancer.
  • High blood sugar levels and an increased risk of diabetes. With lack of sleep people tend to eat more sweet and starchy foods rather than vegetables and dairy products. Researchers suspect sleep deprivation puts your body into a pre-diabetic state, and makes you feel hungry, even if you've already eaten.
  • Risk of heart disease and stroke. In the latest study published in the journal Sleep, your risk of heart disease and stroke significantly increased if you sleep fewer than seven hours per day. Sleeping less than 5 hrs a day doubles your risk of angina, coronary heart disease, heart attack or stroke.
  • Lack of Sleep can lead to weight gain. Disrupting the body clock with lack of sleep can wreak havoc on your weight. With lack of sleep, your body decreases production of leptin, the hormone that tells your brain there is no need for more food. At the same time it increases levels of ghrelin, a hormone that triggers hunger. This means that you end up feeling hungrier without really feeling satisfied with what you eat, thus causing you to eat more and, consequently, gain weight. 
  • With lack of sleep, the brain's ability to function quickly deteriorates. The brain works harder to counteract the lack of sleep effects, but operates less effectively: concentration levels drop, and memory becomes impaired. Similarly, the brain's ability to problem solve is greatly impaired. Decision-making abilities are compromised, and the brain falls into rigid thought patterns that make it difficult to generate new problem-solving ideas. Severe lack of sleep can also cause people to have hallucinations. 
  • Lack of sleep causes loss of memory. Your circadian clock controls your daily cycle of sleep and wakefulness by alternately inhibiting and exciting different parts of your brain through regulation of the release of certain neurotransmitters. The part of your brain known as the hippocampus must be excited in order for the things you learn to be organized in such a way that you’ll remember them later.

Additional risks due to lack of sleep:

The Ideal Amount of Sleep

There's no one magic number that covers everyone at every age and circumstance. Your age and activity level will determine your sleep needs. For instance, children and teens need more sleep than adults. Your sleep needs are individual to you. You may require more or less sleep than someone of the same age, gender and activity level. Part of the reason for the difference has to do with what the National Sleep Foundation (NSF) calls your basal sleep need and your sleep debt:

  • Basal Sleep Need: The amount of sleep you need on a regular basis for optimal performance.
  • Sleep Debt: The accumulated sleep lost due to poor sleep habits, sickness, environmental factors and other causes.

Studies suggest that adults have a basal sleep need of seven to eight hours each night. But, your individual sleep requirement may be anywhere between six and nine hours of sleep a night. Your best bet is to listen to your body. If you still feel tired when you get up, you probably aren't getting sufficient sleep. It's best to observe how you feel immediately upon awakening rather than after you're up and moving around. Those first few moments of wakefulness, before your mind fully kicks into gear, are a better measure of how your body is feeling.

Repaying Lack of Sleep Debt

Researchers have found an additional hour or two of sleep in the morning after a period of chronic partial sleep loss has genuine benefits for continued recovery of behavioral alertness. However, for most people the lack of sleep has become a lifestyle pattern, and sleeping in on weekends is not going to undo the damage being done. A chronic lack of high-quality sleep cannot be recovered. You may feel rested and mentally sharper after sleeping in, but the mental benefit is temporary, while the graver health hazards are compounding.

Last modified on Tuesday, 21 August 2012 09:35
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