4 Ways A Lack of Sleep Affects Mental and Physical Health

September 7, 2021

Experts say we should get at least seven hours of sleep every night, but you are not alone if you don’t get enough sleep. About a third of the American adult population does not get enough rest. Several people are well known for attempting to beat the record for the longest recorded time without sleep. In 1963, a 17-year-old boy named Randy Gardner went almost 264 hours—over 11 days—without rest. Within a couple of days, he had begun to hallucinate and experience paranoia, delusions, and even psychosis. While researchers are unsure of how long people can survive without sleep, the effects of sleep deprivation settle in quickly. 

Related link: Why Sleep Apnea Screenings Should Be Part of Your Dental Practice

Even without going 11 days straight without sleep, one’s overall quality of life can decline due to getting insufficient rest. Not only can excessive sleepiness impair one’s ability to perform daily tasks, like work and study, but inadequate sleep is also associated with chronic health conditions like heart disease. Keep reading to learn about four additional ways insufficient sleep can affect your body.

It Can Hurt Your Immune System

Losing sleep can impact your body’s ability to fight off sickness, causing you to get sick more often. This can lead to a vicious cycle between sleep and your immune system, as getting sick can then cause sleepless nights while your body recuperates. As a result, you may get sick more often, then continue to get insufficient sleep because of it.

So, why does this happen? Well, poor sleep hurts your immune system because T cells—which are in charge of fighting other cells with germs—are typically redistributed to our lymph nodes during sleep. However, getting insufficient rest inhibits the production and transport of these throughout the body and prevents them from interacting with proteins to regulate inflammation. Similarly, sleep deprivation can lower white blood cell count, leading to decreased immune function. Without sleep, your body does not have sufficient time to recuperate and prepare for the next workday.

It Can Increase Your Risk of Cancer

Because of their effect on every part of the body, long-term sleep disruptions may also increase the risk of developing cancer. One reason for this is that sleep deprivation is associated with other potentially serious health conditions—like obesity and diabetes—that are risk factors for cancer. Similarly, sleep can affect how cells function, alter their environment, and impact their growth. While more research is needed to identify the connection between sleep and cancer, the overall wear that sleep deprivation has on the body could lead one to be more susceptible to developing cancer.

In addition to the possibility that sleep deprivation increases cancer risk, it also works reciprocally. Cancer may also affect sleep and lead to physical and mental changes that hinder sleep in cancer survivors for years to come. In these cases, those with cancer may improve their physical and emotional health with better sleep, improving their ability to cope with cancer and its aftereffects.

It Can Increase Your Risk of Heart Disease

Sleep disorders like insomnia and sleep apnea affect the quality of your sleep and affect your heart health. In fact, 44 percent of people with heart problems also report frequent insomnia. There are a few theories behind why insomnia might be linked to heart problems. Insomnia may activate stress responses that take a toll on the heart, or insomnia may be caused by a biological condition that also causes heart disease. On top of these possibilities, insomnia is associated with conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure, and obesity, which can all affect your heart. 

Related link: Four Signs Your Patient May Be Dealing With A Sleep Disorder

Sleep apnea is also connected to heart disease, with obstructive sleep apnea affecting up to 50 percent of people with heart failure. This may be because it disrupts the amount of oxygen your body can get while sleeping. Like other conditions associated with poor sleep, heart disease tends to make sleep apnea worse, and sleep apnea often makes heart disease worse. As a result, treating one of these concerns usually improves the symptoms associated with the other. 

It Can Affect Your Brain’s Functioning

Your brain is also affected by not getting enough sleep. The excessive sleepiness you experience due to a lack of sleep can impair your brain’s functions, leading to difficulty concentrating, memory problems, and poor decision-making. On top of these consequences, your brain may experience the following effects due to insufficient sleep:

  • Poorer short-term and long-term memory
  • Accumulation of proteins associated with Alzheimer’s disease 
  • Inability to multitask
  • Difficulty with creativity and divergent thinking
  • Mental health concerns like depression or anxiety

If you experience these issues regularly, it may be because you aren’t getting enough sleep. By forming a consistent sleep schedule, you can get the sleep you need and improve your wellbeing in more ways than one. 

As you can see, sleep affects more than just your energy levels. It can impact everything from your mental and physical health to your ability to function and perform well throughout the day. Lack of sleep can hurt your immune system, increase your risk of heart disease and cancer, and affect your brain’s short-term and long-term functioning.