When life gets crazy and it’s time to cut things out, oftentimes the first thing to go is our sleep. College students never get enough rest, parents are always somehow sleep-deprived, and even young professionals are constantly pressured to achieve more with their free time and, as a consequence, sleep less.
The issue has rapidly worsened over the past couple generations. According to the American Psychological Association, “only 20 percent of adults say the quality of their sleep is very good or excellent.” That means one-fifth of Americans are satisfied with their sleep. That’s pretty dismal.
Our communal and chronic lack of sleep is actually quite new. In 1942, less than 8 percent of people reported scraping by on six or fewer hours of sleep a night. In 2017, however, nearly half of us do it. And for what? Are we accomplishing more, getting healthier, or advancing society by depriving ourselves of a basic human need? Not at all.
It’s likely the opposite — failing to get enough sleep doesn’t feel good, as you probably are aware. And there’s a reason it makes you feel so terrible. Sleep deprivation is really bad for you, especially when the lack becomes chronic and habitual, and has a lot of really frightening effects on our physical health.
Not only do you feel miserable, but you look miserable, too. “When people get sleep-deprived, they don’t show positive emotion in their faces,” said David Dinges, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. Even when sleep-deprived people said they were happy, they couldn’t express it naturally. And happiness really affects your health — so don’t even get us started on the scary outcomes of neglecting to smile.
Even after just one night of failing to get enough sleep, the body can start inducing “microsleeps,” short episodes where you fall asleep uncontrollably. The episodes usually last less than 30 seconds and can occur with eyes open — without you even being aware of the lapse. Though you do snap out of it and wake up again, another episode is likely within minutes.
Not to stress you out, but if you’re not sleeping, your stress hormones are flying through the roof. Stress hormones, such as cortisol, have been associated with higher risk of heart disease, diabetes, and damaging inflammation.
What’s worse is that the cortisol then prevents you from being able to fall asleep later — creating what the American Psychological Association called the “sleep-stress cycle.” That’s a downward spiral you do not want to have to crawl your way out of.
It’s very possible that this association is because of the elevated stress levels we mentioned earlier — but regardless of the reasons why, those who don’t sleep enough are putting their blood pressure through the roof. According to results from a 2010 study, “both sleep deprivation and insomnia have been linked to increases in incidence and prevalence of hypertension.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, hypertension “can seriously hurt important organs like your heart and brain.” Luckily, how to lower your blood pressure isn’t a mystery. Even just getting a few extra hours of sleep can help.
If you have a big exam in the morning, sleeping might be better for your grade than a few extra hours of studying. Pretty much all of your cognitive processes (i.e., the things that make your brain work) rely on adequate sleep. When you don’t get enough, it impairs your learning ability, reaction time, attention span, and even overall intelligence.
If you’re trying to spice things up in bed, it’s possible the only thing you need to change is how many hours you’re sleeping in it. Dozens of studies have suggested that sleep-deprivation leads to a lowered libido and a lack of sexual drive. This is probably because of the serious lack of energy you experience when you haven’t slept enough — not to mention that your hormones are all out of whack. So if your partner’s griping, “I’m too tired,” you might want to just let them sleep.
Didn’t sleep enough last night? That’s depressing — literally. Depression and altered mood have been linked to a lack of sleep time and time again by saddening science. According to a study from the University of Pennsylvania, subjects who were limited to 4.5 hours of sleep each night for just one week reported feeling more stressed, angry, sad, and mentally exhausted. When they started sleeping more again, they all reported a dramatic improvement in mood.
After a few nights without catching enough zzz’s, you might notice some puffiness beneath your eyes and sagginess in your cheeks. As you can imagine, that effect adds wear and tear to the proteins that hold up your skin over time. The less sleep you get, the more wrinkles dig into your complexion — essentially aging you faster.
Ironically, most of this poor judgement ends up being about whether they need to be getting more sleep. “Studies show that over time, people who are getting six hours of sleep, instead of seven or eight, begin to feel that they’ve adapted to that sleep deprivation — they’ve gotten used to it,” sleep expert Phil Gehrman, Ph.D., told Web MD. “There’s a point in sleep deprivation when we lose touch with how impaired we are.” Regardless of the perception that we’re doing fine without our nightly eight hours, studies show that the effects of sleep aggregate over time.
Always forgetting where you left your keys? It could be a sign you need to get to bed earlier. Your memory depletes in tandem with the hours you spend sleeping each night. Your short-term memory gets worse because your attention span suffers. Your long-term memory gets worse because memories are solidified during hours spent unconscious. So in every way possible, it makes you forgetful.
A lack of sleep has been linked to a higher risk of Type 2 diabetes, and this is precisely why. When you don’t sleep, your insulin levels are thrown off. Your body becomes less effective at bringing your blood sugar down again after it spikes, and your fluctuating blood sugar makes it more difficult for you to fall asleep once you finally crawl under the covers — just like these 15 poor choices for a bedtime snack.