Everyone knows that a bad night’s sleep can make you feel less than your best, but how much of a toll on mind and body does sleep deprivation really take? And what happens when one bad night turns into two, or three, or several years of poor quality sleep?
Lack of Sleep: The Studies
A 2017 report from Statistics Canada revealed that more than half of all women (55%) and 43% of men have trouble getting to sleep or staying asleep. The study examined the sleep habits of more than 10,000 Canadians aged 18 to 79 over a six-year period and found that around 1 in 3 Canadians sleeps fewer than the recommended number of hours each night, and almost half (40% of men and 48% of women) don’t find their sleep refreshing. Even more worrying, 1 in 3 of the respondents said they have trouble staying awake during the daytime.
Problems associated with sleep deficiencies extend well beyond fatigue, though. Recent sleep studies have linked insufficient sleep to a host of problems, including sleep disorders, hypertension, depression, anxiety, diabetes, and improper immune functioning, along with decreased libido, smoking, and impaired memory and concentration.
In the last 30 to 40 years, the average amount of sleep a person gets has dropped to less than 7 hours a night. Indeed, according to the Statistics Canada report, Canadians are getting about an hour less sleep now than they were as recently as 2005 (7.12 vs. 8.2 hours).
And it’s not just adults who are suffering from lack of sleep. Many children stay up late watching television or playing on tablets and smartphones long after their recommended bedtime. Over the same time period that sleep duration has declined, there has also been a significant increase in diabetes and obesity, especially in children. While correlation cannot prove causation, this striking overlap has prompted many researchers to look closely at how lack of sleep may make us more vulnerable to disease.
One finding is that sleep deprivation increases the likelihood that we overeat, choose unhealthy foods, and eat for comfort. Lack of sleep is associated with an increase in ghrelin and a decrease in leptin, the so-called “hunger hormones” that modulate appetite control. Sleep deprivation appears to impair glucose metabolism and is also associated with an increase in cortisol (the stress hormone) and inflammatory and pro-inflammatory markers, which are signs of physiological stress.
Taken together, these physiological responses to a lack of good sleep could increase insulin resistance and propel us toward diabetes and unwanted weight gain. In one recent study, researchers found that 7–12-year-old students who got less than 9 hours of sleep a night were almost 30% more likely to be overweight and were 23.1% more likely to be obese than their counterparts who got enough sleep. For 16–18-year-old students, things were even worse. Those who slept less than 7 hours a night were 53% more likely to be overweight and 58.5% more likely to be obese.
A lack of consistent, good quality sleep has also been linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease in adults, and impaired immune function and muscle growth. The latter is due, in part, to lower levels of growth hormone in people who get insufficient amounts of sleep. In children, sleeplessness may even stunt growth.
Sleep Deprivation and the Brain
Poor sleep is also associated with decreased mental performance, including reduced alertness that can increase our risk of being involved in an accident. Physiologically, sleep deprivation causes impaired metabolism in the brain, especially in the thalamus, prefrontal, frontal, and occipital cortex and in motor speech centres. This is why sleeplessness has been linked to the following:
- Impaired perception
- Poor concentration
- Vision disturbances
- Slow reaction times
- Increased errors on even simple tasks
- Micro-episodes of sleep during waking hours
- Poor memory
- Impaired thinking, leading to wrong decisions
- Emotional disturbances (such as increased aggression and impatience)
- Muscle tremors
- Increased pain sensitivity
- Slower, more monotonous speech
The evidence from sleep studies suggests that 20–25 hours of sleeplessness causes a similar impairment in performance of tasks as a 0.1% blood alcohol level. This means that sleep deprivation is akin to being drunk and makes some tasks (such as operating heavy machinery) dangerous after even just one bad night’s sleep. As such, sleep deprivation has both a personal and societal cost, given that many accidents damage public property, use up shared resources and tax dollars, and can even injure or kill another person.
What Can You Do?
It seems safe to say that sleep deprivation is a big problem, affecting us personally and also as a society. As with any problem, the best way to solve it is to get to its root.
For some of us, this means learning how to better manage our time so we can get to bed earlier. For others, it may mean cutting out caffeine after 3 pm or even after noon. For anyone whose sleeplessness is linked to stress, it pays to make lifestyle modifications to reduce avoidable stress and to learn better coping strategies for the inevitable and unavoidable stress of everyday life. Natural supplements like theanine can help stop a racing mind and promote restful sleep, while melatonin is a great way to reset the sleep-wake cycle if travel, work, or stress has thrown us off schedule.
In some cases, sleeplessness is caused by an underlying health issue that requires treatment from a qualified health care practitioner. As sleep deprivation is bad for just about every aspect of health, getting a handle on this early is definitely advisable. So, if you are experiencing persistent or pronounced sleep disturbances, make an appointment with your health care practitioner as soon as possible so you can rest easy.
Learn more about how to get a better sleep with The Ultimate Guide from Webber Naturals
 Statistics Canada. Duration and quality of sleep among Canadians aged 18 to 79. Health Reports [Online] 2017. Available from: https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/82-003-x/2017009/article/54857-eng.htm [Accessed 4th December 2018].
 Rao TP, Ozeki M, Juneja LR. In search of a safe natural sleep aid. J Am Coll Nutr. 2015; 34(5):436-447.
 Sun Q, Bai Y, Zhai L, et al. Association between sleep duration and overweight/obesity at age 7–18 in Shenyang, China in 2010 and 2014. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2018; 15(5):854.
 Williamson AM, Feyer AM. Moderate sleep deprivation produces impairments in cognitive and motor performance equivalent to legally prescribed levels of alcohol intoxication. Occup Environ Med. 2000; 57(10):649-655.