Sleep is intertwined with countless aspects of our lives, ranging from our productivity to our emotional state to our physical health. Yet while many acknowledge that sleep is essential to leading healthy lives, the exact health benefits of proper sleep hygiene are not as widely known. However, recent research is providing us with more and more concrete evidence about sleep’s crucial role in our bodily functions as well as the detrimental consequences of both sleep disruption and sleep deprivation.

Basics of Sleep

To truly understand the consequences of sleep loss, you need to understand the fundamentals of sleep physiology. Sleep is broken up into two general stages—rapid eye-movement sleep (REM) and non-rapid eye movement sleep (NREM)—that alternate cyclically through the night. NREM sleep is composed of four stages lasting for a total of 90 to 120 minutes. NREM stages 1 and 2 are associated with a wakeful relaxation state, while NREM stages 3 and 4 are collectively referred to as “slow-wave sleep” and occur mostly during the first third of the night. REM sleep is defined by dreaming and loss of muscle tone/reflexes (your body is essentially paralyzed). The processes of restoration and memory consolidation are generally attributed to REM sleep, which begins after a period of non-REM sleep. 

Detriments of Sleep Loss

Because REM sleep does not begin immediately upon sleep onset, frequent sleep disruption results in a lack of REM sleep. According to Dr. Durham of Missouri State University’s Center of Biomedical and Life Sciences, “clinical data support a relationship between sleep quality and migraines.” His research indicates that REM sleep deprivation alters the levels of crucial proteins which decrease the activation threshold of nerves involved in a migraine’s pain transmission—in other words, lack of REM sleep interferes with our body’s ability to regulate pain.

Beyond headaches, short term effects of sleep loss include increased stress and psychosocial issues. Consistent lack of sleep increases strain on our hearts and directly affects our stress hormones, in turn decreasing functionality and cognition. Individuals of all ages reported consistently significant decreases in coordination and memory retention after sleepless nights. The crankiness or difficult temper you may experience after a restless night of sleep is rooted in a legitimate imbalance of our stress hormones. 

Disrupted sleep is also greatly influential in the development of depression. An experimental trial showed that those who experienced forced nocturnal awakenings suffered from significant decreases in positive mood. Moreover, the adult participants in this trial completed Personality Assessment Inventories that indicated symptoms of depression and anxiety. For those with high stress level jobs in particular, disrupted sleep was directly connected with high work-burnout levels. 

Long-term consequences of sleep disruption and deprivation can severely disrupt the lives of otherwise healthy individuals. Sleep loss wreaks havoc upon our metabolic processes. Even in adolescents, sleep loss is correlated with higher cholesterol levels, high systolic blood pressure, and increased risk of disruption. Not to mention, skimping on sleep time causes our bodies to compensate for the increased energy expenditure with an increased appetite. You may have noticed that after pulling an all-nighter, you spend the next day itching for more snacks than usual. Consequently, chronic sleep loss is highly associated with weight gain and cardiac issues. 

Even more frightening is the impact of sleep loss on cancer resistance. Sleep deprivation and the disruption of our circadian rhythm have been proven to accelerate tumor formation and increase the risk of cancer. As we sleep, our body produces a hormone called melatonin (you may have seen this marketed as a supplement to help induce sleep or to cope with jet lag) which regulates sleep and wakefulness. Melatonin not only maintains our circadian rhythm, but also repairs our DNA and prevents tumor growth.

Ultimately, both sleep loss and sleep disruption are incredibly harmful to our bodies. Sleep deprivation is a deeply pervasive problem and one that is perpetuated by our modern society, but as difficult as it may be, prioritizing sleep is paramount to leading a higher quality life.

Take a step back

Our lives today are filled with juggling several responsibilities and commitments, and more often than we realize, sleep is pushed to the back of the priority list. Even as a high-school student, I find myself falling into the habit of postponing sleep for what I consider more “important”. In as fast-paced a world as the one we live in today, sleeping seems like a poor use of our time.

But among all that chaos, just take a moment to think about your sleep schedule. Perhaps more importantly, spend some time creating an ideal setting free of any disruptions to avoid unnecessary night-time awakenings. If you are cutting on sleep, you may be missing out on far more than you realize.