How can sleep deprivation harm you?

We all know the importance of sleep, but not all of us are informed about the neurocognitive outcomes of sleep loss. According to recent Gallup surveys, 40% of Americans aren’t getting enough sleep. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention referenced sleep deprivation as a “Public Health Epidemic” affecting more and more individuals each year.

Recent research in Sweden, published in the SLEEP journal, reports that after one night of sleeping less than eight hours, brain tissue loss occurred.  This is clearly distressing because this shows that sleep loss may promote neurodegenerative processes. Other research trials also show evidence that sleeping is crucial in supporting brain health.

Recent research published in the United Kingdom describes that sleeping less than eight hours for an entire week  changes 700 genes in your body. These affected genes may be linked to serious health consequences from stroke to mortality risks. Chronic poor sleep is also associated with increased cardiovascular problems, an increased risk of obesity, and an increased risk of cancers such as colorectal and breast cancers. 

sleep deprivation
Sleep loss also makes people gain weight, and as studies suggest, this is because sleep deprivation affects the frontal cortex of the brain–the decision center. Research studies report that depriving people of sleep for one night results in noticeable alteration in the way their brains respond to high-calorie foods. Other pivotal and controlled studies have found that levels of ghrelin, the hormone responsible for increased appetite, increase in individuals who don’t get adequate sleep.  On the other side, leptin, the hormone responsible for hunger suppression, is produced less.  Individuals also become less responsive to insulin, increasing their chance of getting Type 2 diabetes.

The research findings give an explanation as to why we make poor dietary choices, and when fatigued, why we tend to eat much more. The findings also explain why memory loss and fatigue, as a result of sleep deprivation, lead to poor performance in jobs or school. Lastly, the findings support the idea that our immune system gets weaker when we don’t sleep (we’re more likely to catch a cold).

However, you may be wondering how exactly sleep interrupts brain function? Adenosine, a metabolic byproduct, interrupts neural activity and helps us to sleep. Without sufficient sleep, adenosine accumulates and deteriorates the communication between networks in the brain. So stop it with those all-nighters, college students, and get some sleep!

O’Connor, Anahad. “ How Sleep Loss Adds to Weight Gain.” New York Times.  August 6th, 2013. Web. January 19th, 2014.

Ross, Irene. “ Sleep Deprivation: Here’s What Can Happen.” The Huffington Post. December 9th, 2013. Web. January 19th, 2014.

Schocker, Laura. “Here’s A Horrifying Picture of What Sleep Loss Will Do to You.” The Huffington Post. January 8th, 2014. Web. January 19th, 2014.

“Sleep Deprivation Can Change Your Genes.” The Huffington Post. February 26th, 2013.Web. January 19th.


3 thoughts on “How can sleep deprivation harm you?

  1. A.P

    Francesca, this is a good question. As you said the demands at school/jobs/family get higher and higher but we need to effectively manage our time better. If we are not healthy then what’s the point?

    1. Francesca Voza

      Hello AP, So sorry for the delay, I had actually not seen your reply until now. My point was that most people know that sleep deprivation really harm us but just don’t know how to manage their time, especially in today’s society, to be able to find their +/- 8h sleep everyday or nap time… It would be good to reflect on efficient ways to teach people how to do that, that was my point. As future health professionals, we have to be concerned by that. In extreme cases, I’ve been confronted with patients, while volunteering in the ER, who would take drugs to stay awake to keep up with the 5 jobs they had to do in order to pay rent, taxes, education, provide food on the table to their family. Yes, these patients would end up in the ER with bad consequences but how can you tell them :”you should have lead a different life and you should sleep more?”. Of course, they really wish they could, but how can that ever seem possible to them if the alternative is to be healthier but with a homeless family? I just think that it is our duty to reflect on the deeper changes or program that can be done in society to improve the quality of life of human beings in addition to knowing what is good and bad for us.

  2. Francesca Voza

    All these studies are great and I am sure that most of them are from reputable journals but a good study would be how can we possibly sleep 8 hours when we want to succeed in the lives that we have to lead nowadays where the demands at work, school, family get higher and higher?

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