You may be sleep-deprived and feel fine being chronically tired. ‘Adulting’ has somewhat normalized the constant feeling of tiredness. However, sleep deprivation catches up to you because it happens slowly over time. It is more than missing the recommended eight hours one night a week. It is chronic neglect of sleep that affects your mind and body’s proper function. It blindsides you the same as weight gain. You don’t put on the weight overnight; it happens over time as you consume more calories than we burn. Your body needs a baseline number of calories to perform; likewise, your body needs sleep. Balanced mental and physical health requires adequate and consistent sleep, meaning more than six hours a night, seven days a week. While being chronically tired from sleep deprivation might be manageable, the long-term effects can drastically impact health and quality of life.
There is a reason your mind and body feel energized after a great night’s sleep. You feel even better after a few quality consecutive nights of sleep. When you give your brain time to shut down, it can rest and restore itself to optimally perform.
There are four stages of sleep, three during non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep and one during rapid eye movement (REM). During NREM sleep, the sympathetic nervous system shuts off and reduces blood pressure, leaving you at a decreased risk of heart attack, stroke, and heart failure. This type of sleep is necessary for detoxification purposes, including unimportant memories (neural connections).
Stage 1: Dozing off
Brain activity starts to slow down, and the body relaxes.
Stage 2: Subdued state
Body temperature drops while the cadence of breath and heartbeat slow down.
Stage 3: Deep sleep
Your breath and pulse drop lower while your muscles relax. The brain activity includes delta waves, and it is challenging to wake someone in this stage. However, experts believe this to be the most critical stage of sleep for recovery, memory, creativity, and the immune system.
Stage 4: Rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. It is different from NREM sleep because while brain activity picks up, the body stays very still. The purpose of this stage is to strengthen memories and cognitive function. Your most vivid dreams occur at this stage. Most people strive for this sleep because of the long and slow waves taking you into a deep, restful sleep.
The ideal deep sleep cycles run in 90-minute sessions, beginning with NREM, and ending with REM – the ratio changes over time. Ideally, you will get more NREM initially, and then it will shift to more REM at the end of the night. This process clears away clutter to strengthen the brain. Seven to eight hours of sleep likely equates to experiencing five total cycles.
The worst long-term effects of sleep deprivation
Consistently missing out on sleep is the gateway to health problems. When you don’t get enough sleep, your mental and physical health are at risk. Therefore, sleep must be a top priority to keep your health at an optimal level. Sleep deprivation has serious consequences. For example, if you drive while sleep deprived, it is considered even more dangerous than drunk driving. In fact, in the US, 1.2 million driving accidents are caused by drowsy drivers each year.
Lack of sleep also severely impacts emotions by affecting the amygdala (stronger emotions) and the brain’s striatum (pleasure-seeking) parts. Activity in these emotional centers increases 60% when you haven’t had enough sleep. In addition, sleep deprivation activates the sympathetic nervous system, also known as the fight or flight response. This state increases cortisol and blood pressure and constricts blood vessels, leading to decreased blood flow to the heart.
If you don’t give your mind and body the required sleep, you put yourself in danger in the present and set yourself up for some serious negative long-term consequences.
Here are a few long-term effects of sleep deprivation:
- Decrease of memory – Did you know cramming for an exam or working under pressure with a tight deadline results in 40% less retention? The hippocampus shuts down under states like sleep deprivation. Memory connections are also weaker when you are sleep deprived.
- Alzheimer’s disease – A lack of sleep, specifically a lack of NREM, puts you at a higher risk for Alzheimer’s disease. This is because the glymphatic system (sewage system for the brain) cleans Beta-Amyloid (BA) deposits and other toxic debris during (NREM) sleep.
- Increased risk of heart attacks and strokes – The heart and brain need a chance to rest and restore. Adults 45 years or older who sleep less than six hours a night have a 200% greater chance of having a heart attack or stroke than those sleeping an average of seven to eight hours a night.
- Obesity – Ghrelin hormone, also known as the hunger hormone, increases production when you don’t have a decent night’s sleep. When this is the case, the leptin hormone, also known as the satiated hormone, decreases its production, leading to overeating, which increases obesity. Similarly, the less energy you have throughout the day, the more likely you are to reach for sugary drinks or food to give yourself a jolt.
- Infertility – Infertility is linked to sleep deprivation because it can trigger an unhealthy balance of sex hormones and stress hormones. Feeling tired can decrease libido. For men, there is a reduction in sperm count. For women, sleep deprivation can prevent ovulation and turn cycles irregular, making conception challenging and increasing the likelihood of a high-risk pregnancy.
Prioritizing sleep is essential. If you feel yourself starting to drift, take a nap. Notice if you feel slightly refreshed when you wake up from the rest. Pay attention to how you feel once you start to get consistent sleep. Waking up may feel easier; you may be naturally more energetic in the morning and may notice an overall improvement in your mood. Maybe you realize you are less likely to have outbursts or feel emotionally drained when you get enough sleep. Set the alarm for a ‘wind-down time’ each night and create a nightly routine that will ease your mind and body into rest.
The bottom line
While being chronically tired from sleep deprivation might be manageable, the long-term effects can drastically impact your health and quality of life. If the mind and body are not getting enough sleep, the depths of the negative impacts go far beyond the feeling of being tired. According to many medical experts, sleep is the number one priority in taking care of your mental and physical health. If your mind and body are well-rested and taken care of, you will be in a much better condition to achieve your goals and face life’s challenges. Do yourself a favor and prioritize sleep now so that you don’t regret it later on.