10 Surprising Effects of Sleep Deprivation

December 14, 2021

Sleep experts recommend that all adults aged 18 to 60 sleep at least seven hours every night in order to promote optimal functioning. However, the CDC estimates that over one-third of Americans aren’t getting enough sleep on a regular basis. This means that millions of people aren’t receiving adequate sleep to function every day, and the results of poor sleep can be extreme. Sleeping less than seven hours a night is associated with severe health conditions, such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and high blood pressure.

For this reason and more, individuals should make getting enough sleep a priority in their lives. Practicing healthy sleep habits can help people not only feel better on a daily basis but also help prevent chronic health concerns and lead the healthiest and happiest lives possible. Want to learn more about how sleep can impact your life? Let’s dive into 10 of the most surprising effects of sleep deprivation.

Increased Risk of Car Accidents

Did you know that nearly 100,000 traffic accidents are due to drowsy driving every year? Over 1,500 deaths can be attributed to these crashes, and drowsy driving is more common than you may realize. More than 40 percent of drivers have admitted to falling asleep behind the wheel.

The truth is that you don’t have to be especially sleep-deprived to be at risk of drowsy driving. Getting one hour less sleep than you need; using sleep aids, anti-anxiety medications, or alcohol; driving alone; driving for long hours without breaks; and having an undiagnosed sleep disorder can all dramatically increase your risk of falling asleep at the wheel. So, next time you get the urge to stay up late at night, remember that it could seriously impair your ability to drive well—even throughout the day.

Serious Health Problems

Sleep affects more than just your energy levels—it can also impact your physical health and your body’s ability to function every day. Not only can sleep deprivation cause you to have a hard time functioning the following day, but regular poor sleep has also been linked to a number of chronic conditions, including the following:

  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Chronic pain
  • Immunodeficiency
  • Mental health disorders
  • Dementia or Alzheimer’s

It’s clear that sleep loss could have effects on nearly every system of the body, including the cardiovascular, endocrine, immune, and nervous systems. If you do everything you can to sleep well at night and still experience insomnia or fatigue, consider reaching out to your doctor. You may have an underlying condition like sleep apnea or another sleep disorder that is impacting your ability to sleep.

Worsened Mental Health

Beyond your physical health, sleep deprivation can also have a significant impact on your mental and emotional health. According to Harvard Health, “Chronic sleep problems affect 50% to 80% of patients in a typical psychiatric practice, compared with 10% to 18% of adults in the general U.S. population.” Along those lines, sleep problems are especially common in individuals with depression, ADHD, bipolar disorder, and anxiety.

The connection between mental health and sleep is bidirectional. Not only do those with mental health disorders often have a harder time sleeping well at night, but poor sleep can also play a role in the initiation and severity of these mental health problems. This can lead to an unwavering cycle of sleeplessness and poor mental health, which is why reaching out to a medical professional could be the best way to treat both insomnia and any psychological disorders.

Aged Skin

You’ve probably heard of beauty rest, but did you know that there’s actually science behind the concept? Sleep is essential to epidermal recovery; in fact, it’s when the most important internal recovery takes place. Research also shows that sleep deprivation has an immediate impact on facial appearance. Just one night of poor sleep can lead to the following characteristics:

  • Swollen eyes
  • Paler skin
  • More wrinkles and fine lines
  • Hanging eyelids
  • Droopy corners of the mouth

Sleep is the time for your body to repair itself, which is just as true for your epidermis as it is for your mind and the rest of your body, so don’t trade in those moments of rest! Your body and skin will thank you for it.

Difficulty Concentrating

There can be a number of reasons behind poor concentration: ADHD, depression, sleep apnea, and more. However, sleep is one of the most common causes behind poor cognition and difficulty concentrating. For example, many people with sleep disorders like obstructive sleep apnea often report trouble with memory, concentration, and learning. Additionally, research shows that sleep deprivation can impact long-term memory and decision-making.

It’s difficult to find a single cognitive skill that isn’t affected by sleep deprivation. This is because it interferes with the ability of brain cells to perform at a cellular level, preventing them from communicating with one another and leaving them in a state of activation in which the brain is always on. Some research has even suggested that 75 percent of people with ADHD may have a chronic sleep problem that stems from a disruption to their circadian rhythms. If you regularly have difficulty concentrating well throughout the day, it may be a sign for you to look at your sleep schedule and identify ways you can improve the quality of your sleep.

Weight Gain

A clear association exists between sleep deprivation and negative changes in metabolism. Adults who sleep four hours a night are shown to experience an increase in hunger and appetite, especially when it comes to foods high in carbohydrates. Similarly, one study found that those who had a BMI higher than 30 had shorter sleep durations and more variability in their sleep. It seems that not only are those who don’t sleep enough inclined to eat more and gain weight, but those who are overweight are also more likely to sleep poorly at night.

So, why does this happen? According to the Mayo Clinic, “one explanation might be that sleep duration affects hormones regulating hunger—ghrelin and leptin.” It could also be the fact that lack of sleep contributes to fatigue and therefore results in less physical activity. Whatever the reason, this is just one more reason to prioritize getting a great night of sleep every night.

Weaker Immune System

Sleep and your immune system have a bidirectional relationship, which means that not only can your immune response affect your sleep but also that getting consistent sleep strengthens your immune system. This is because rest provides vital support, allowing the immune system to feature adaptive immunity, less severe allergies, and an efficient response to vaccines. Poor sleep—on the other hand—can interfere with the immune system.

In the short term, the risk of infection has been found to be higher in individuals who don’t sleep at least seven hours a night, making them more likely to catch a cold or the flu. Similarly, sleep deprivation has been connected to long-term health concerns that are thought to be associated with its negative effects on the immune system. When someone isn’t able to get good sleep, inflammation cannot recede to a normal level before waking up, causing the system to fail and inflammation to persist. This takes a toll on the rest of the body, contributing to a higher risk of diabetes, chronic pain, heart disease, depression, and more.

Lower Self-Esteem

Insufficient sleep can drastically influence individuals’ emotions—including their confidence. One study found that those who had less than six hours of sleep experienced not only lower self-esteem but also less optimism in comparison to those who got seven or eight hours of sleep. Likewise, sleep deprivation has also been linked to strong feelings of anger, frustration, and sadness—all feelings that can make it more challenging to work on self-esteem. So, if you’ve ever woken up feeling less confident, it could be the result of a night of poor sleep.

On the other hand, getting plenty of sleep is one of the best ways to improve your mood and self-confidence. Next time you’re feeling down about yourself, consider cozying up to bed a couple of hours earlier and see how you feel the next day.

Shorter Life Expectancy

Because sleep has such an important role in your overall health, it could also boost your longevity and help you live longer. The better sleep you get, the better able your body is to repair throughout the night and make sure everything is running smoothly.

Sleeping less than six hours a night, though, could increase the risk of death—especially in those who have heart disease, high blood pressure, or diabetes. For example, a study conducted at the Penn State College of Medicine found that getting less than six hours of sleep doubled the risk of death for those with high blood pressure or diabetes and more than tripled the risk of death in patients who had heart disease or stroke. While sleep is particularly important for those who have or are at risk of developing heart disease, it’s essential for everyone to prioritize getting the sleep they need.

Impaired Judgment

The last surprising effect of sleep deprivation is that it can actually impair your ability to make great choices. People who don’t get enough sleep are more likely to make risky decisions and focus on the potential reward over the downsides. Like alcohol, sleep deprivation can affect judgment and make it harder for individuals to assess how impaired they are. According to Need Sleep, “Just one sleepless night can impair performance as much as a blood-alcohol level of 0.10 percent, beyond the legal limit to drive.”

If a sleepless night impacts one’s ability to drive as much as alcohol does, think of how much it can also affect other areas of your judgment. One study even found that lack of sleep impairs the ability to integrate emotion and cognition, preventing people from guiding their moral judgments as effectively. While the results don’t suggest that sleep deprivation leads to a decline in morality, they do suggest that those who are sleep deprived are more lenient in their tendency to decide whether a certain action is appropriate or not.

Overall, sleep deprivation impacts nearly every system of the body, leading to cognitive, physical, and mental challenges that can affect an individual’s entire life. If you’re someone who struggles to get seven or eight hours of sleep a night, consider implementing a nighttime routine where you fall asleep and wake up at the same time every day.

Don’t see any improvements in your sleep or overall health afterward? Reach out to your doctor for more insight; you could be suffering from an underlying condition that’s affecting your sleep!