When I was a young mother of four children, I was resistant to sleep deprivation. I prided myself on my ability to function on four hours of rest and marveled at what could be accomplished during the day by skimping on sleep.
Now that I’ve reached my sixties, a good night’s rest is essential to my wellbeing. Without it, I am grumpy, impatient, anxious, and at times, depressed.
Studies have shown that the average person needs 7-8 hours of sleep to function normally during the day. Poor sleeping habits have been linked to a host of health problems, ranging from brain fog to a weakened immune system.
Sleep deprivation can wreak havoc on the body in numerous ways:
1. Memory and concentration levels decrease
While we sleep, our brains clear out toxins that naturally build up during the day. This cleaning process allows us to be more alert and energetic when we wake. Sleep deprivation has the opposite effect, dulling both short-term and long-term memory. It alters our attention span, disrupting problem-solving abilities, and creativity, which can result in poor job performance.
2. Mood swings
Lack of sleep is often the culprit behind irritability, impatience, and emotional difficulties. In extreme cases, it can also lead to symptoms of anxiety and depression.
3. Weakened immune system
A good night’s rest strengthens the immune system against germs that cause common colds and the flu. Lack of sleep prevents the body from fighting off infections, leaving us more prone to illness and slower recovery time.
4. Weight gain
During sleep, the hormones responsible for controlling hunger signal the brain that we are full. Too little sleep decreases these hormone levels, and as a result, we have an increased appetite and stronger cravings for carbohydrates, which may result in sudden weight gain.
5. Risk of heart disease
Sleep deprivation has long been associated with high blood pressure, inflammation, and an increased heart rate. Without sleep, the increased inflammation causes additional strain on the heart, creating a higher risk for cardiovascular disease.
6. Increased chance of type 2 diabetes
Lack of sleep reduces our body’s ability to release insulin, a blood sugar-lowering hormone. If insulin levels are affected by insufficient sleep, the result is an increase in fat storage, putting us at a greater risk for developing type 2 diabetes.
7. Accidents and poor balance
Drowsiness during the day diminishes motor skills, accuracy and awareness, and has been proven as a significant cause of tragic accidents with vehicles. It also creates decreased coordination and balance, which causes more falls and injuries. Older adults are particularly susceptible to serious hip injuries that could become life-threatening if bone fractures occur.
8. Low sex drive
Research suggests that men and women who don’t get enough sleep have lower libidos and less interest in sex. This can cause numerous problems in a relationship if one partner has a higher sex drive than the other and feels neglected.
9. Sleep deprivation ages you
Cutting corners on sleep can lead to a change in physical appearance. Not only does it create dark circles and puffiness around the eyes, but it can also lead to premature wrinkling and sagging skin. Cortisol (a stress hormone) increases when we are sleep deprived and can cause a breakdown in the collagen that normally keeps skin looking smooth and healthy.
8 tips for getting more sleep
The obvious solution to avoid the problems that sleep deprivation cause is to get more sleep. Sometimes this is easier said than done, especially if you’re suffering from long bouts of insomnia. A physician may recommend over-the-counter or prescription medication for sleep, but there are simple, alternative methods that will also help:
1. If your sleep has been restricted for several months, it will take time for the symptoms of sleep debt to disappear. Try incorporating 1-2 hours of additional rest to your nightly routine. You can start small, with 30-minute increases until you reach a full 7-8 hours each night.
2. Be sure to get enough exercise during the day so your body is physically tired and ready to rest at night.
3. Create an atmosphere that is conducive to sleep. A darkened room, limited noise, proper temperature, and a comfortable surface for a good night’s rest.
4. Caffeine, alcohol, and energy drinks are known for disrupting sleep patterns. Avoid drinking these beverages before bed to achieve a night of uninterrupted sleep.
5. Try a nightly meditation routine to help relax the body and calm the mind before going to sleep.
6. Limit screentime before bed. Exposure to the blue light emitted by electronics can affect sleep.
7. Avoid heavy and spicy foods at night. If you need a small snack in the evening, eat something light several hours beforehand so that your body has time to digest the food.
8. Once you have established a scheduled sleep pattern, stick to the routine to guarantee a good night’s rest.
Marcia Kester Doyle is the author of ‘Who Stole My Spandex? Life In The Hot Flash Lane’ and blogs at Menopausal Mom.