Is a Lack of Sleep Affecting Your Health?

woman sleeping in bed near smartphone
"I will sleep when I'm dead" - Warren Zevon

I love getting a good night’s sleep.  It is one of my favourite things to do.  Let me tell you that it is not true that we can learn to get by on little or no sleep (like I used to do when I was younger).  Research has shown that a lack of sleep will have a negative effect on our mental and physical health, quality of life, and overall safety. 

The damage from a lack of sleep can occur in an instant (such as a car crash).  Or it could cause problems over time. An ongoing lack of sleep can raise our risk for some chronic health problems.

lack of sleep
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on
Did you know that after several nights of losing sleep—even a loss of just 1–2 hours per night—our ability to function suffers as if you haven't slept at all for a day or two?

There are three areas where sleep can impact on our health & wellbeing:

  1. A lack of sleep can affect our emotions and behaviour,
  2. A lack of sleep can have physical affects on our bodies, and
  3. A lack of sleep can affect our functioning while awake which can ultimately impact on safety.

How a Lack of Sleep Can Affect Your Behaviour & Emotions

Sleep is important in helping you strengthen and remember information that you learnt during the day.  While you’re sleeping, our brains are forming new pathways that help us do this.  If our sleep is cut short the brain doesn’t have time to do this fully.

Did you know the average person spends around one third of their life asleep?

A lack of sleep can cause problems with learning, focusing, and reacting. We may have trouble making decisions, solving problems, remembering things, controlling our emotions and behaviour, and coping with change.  It can interfere with our work, school, our ability to drive and social interactions. A lack of sleep has also has been linked to depression, suicide, and risk-taking behaviour.

tired from lack of sleep
Photo by Ron Lach on

The signs and symptoms of not getting enough sleep can differ between children and adults. Children who are lacking sleep might be overly active and have problems paying attention. They also might misbehave, feel angry and impulsive, have mood swings, feel sad or depressed and their school performance can suffer resulting in lower grades.  They may have problems getting along with other people and lack motivation, and feel stressed.

How a Lack of Sleep Can Affect Your Physical Health

A lack of sleep is also linked to an increased risk of obesity.  Sleep helps maintain a healthy balance of the hormones that make us feel hungry (ghrelin) or full (leptin). When we don’t get enough sleep, our level of ghrelin goes up and our level of leptin goes down. This makes us feel hungrier than when we are well-rested. So, when we are sleep deprived, we may feel the need to eat more. Ultimately this might lead to weight gain over time.

woman wearing striped shirt holding ice cream
Photo by Jonathan Borba on

Sleep also affects how our body reacts to insulin, the hormone that controls our blood glucose (sugar) level. A lack of sleep can result in a higher than normal blood sugar level, which may increase our risk for diabetes.

Sleep also supports healthy growth and development. Deep sleep triggers the body to release the hormone that promotes normal growth in children and teens. This hormone also boosts muscle mass and helps repair cells and tissues in children, teens, and adults.  A lack of sleep can slow muscle repair. Sleep also plays a role in puberty and fertility.

Kids playing and being healthy outside

Our immune system relies on sleep to stay healthy. This system defends your body against foreign or harmful substances. Ongoing sleep deficiency can change the way in which our immune systems respond. This may make us more vulnerable to disease & infection.

Melatonin – The Sleep Hormone

Melatonin is an important hormone as it impacts on our sleep. It is produced by the pineal gland in the brain. Levels of melatonin vary in 24 hour cycles and are controlled by our body clock. Normally we produce less melatonin in bright light, with levels increasing at night. This hormone is important in helping us regulate our internal body clock. It helps our bodies to fall sleep (at night) and to wake (during the day).  A lack of, or disruption to our sleep means that our body produces less melatonin, which makes it harder for us to fall asleep.

young woman sleeping in comfy bed
Photo by Ketut Subiyanto on

Research shows that melatonin it is important for the proper functioning of our immune systems. It is an antioxidant and scavenges free radicals which helps to reduce inflammation in the body, and may also slow down cellular ageing, including ageing of our brain.  Melatonin assists with ridding the body of cancer cells, and studies have shown that melatonin can also protect you from many types of cancers, including breast cancer.  This hormone has a calming effect on several reproductive hormones, which may explain why it seems to protect against sex hormone driven cancers such as breast cancer.

How a Lack of Sleep Can Affect Performance and Safety

Lack of sleep also may lead to micro sleep. Micro sleep refers to brief moments of sleep that occur when we’re normally awake.  We can’t control micro sleep, and we might not be aware of it. For example, have you ever driven somewhere and then not remembered part of the trip? If so, you may have experienced micro sleep.

A lack of sleep may cause us to take longer to finish tasks, have a slower reaction time, and make more mistakes.

Although we may feel capable of driving, studies show that sleep deficiency harms our driving ability as much as, or more than, being drunk. It’s estimated that driver sleepiness is a factor in about 100,000 car accidents each year, resulting in about 1,500 deaths.

Drivers aren’t the only ones affected by sleep deficiency. It can affect people in all lines of work, including health care workers, pilots, students, lawyers, mechanics, and assembly line workers.

tired at work from lack of sleep
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on

As a result, a lack of sleep is not only harmful on a personal level, but it also has the potential to cause large-scale damage. For example, a lack of sleep has played a role in human errors linked to tragic accidents, such as nuclear reactor meltdowns, grounding of large ships, and aviation accidents.

Knowing that a lack of sleep will have a negative effect on my mental and physical health, quality of life, and overall safety, I can’t think of a better reason to snuggle up in bed and have a good nights rest.

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