Sleep is a natural function of every living thing. Sleep is how the body and the brain replenishes itself and gets ready to perform for the next day. Naturally, this performance is dependent on the quality of rest you get the night before. Sleep deprivation can be hazardous if prolonged.
Sleep deprivation has been associated with immediate, increased risk for motor vehicle accidents, reduced productivity, impaired problem-solving skills and increased stress. Researchers have now shown that what we do to our minds and bodies when we don’t get enough sleep doesn’t just impact us in the short-term but has potentially deadly long-term consequences are long-term:
In 2013, researchers at University Hospitals Case Medical Center discovered evidence to connect sleep inadequacy with premature aging. University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine researchers recently announced the discovery of “disturbing evidence that chronic sleep loss may be more serious than previously thought and may even lead to irreversible physical damage and loss of brain cells.”
Sigrid Veasey and colleagues studied mice on a sleep schedule similar to shift workers, and discovered a connection between sleep deprivation, injury and a damage to neurons associated with alertness and cognition. “This is the first report that sleep loss can actually result in a loss of neurons,” Veasey said in a statement. “While more research will be needed to settle these questions, the present study provides another confirmation of a rapidly growing scientific consensus: Sleep is more important than was previously believed.”
In 2013, researchers found out that with just one week of inadequate sleep, there were more than 700 gene changes, including the genes that influence our immune and stress responses. While the subject pool was small (26 participants), the results suggest that long-term sleep loss may negatively affect us at a molecular level, which might eventually help us better understand the role that sleep loss plays in conditions like diabetes, cancer, obesity, and hypertension.
A 2012 study published in Experimental Biology and Medicine found that chronically sleep-deprived rats had decreased bone density consistent with osteoporosis. “If true in humans, and I expect that it may be, this work will have great impact on our understanding of the impact of sleep deprivation on osteoporosis and inability to repair bone damage as we age,” the journal’s editor, Steven Goodman, said in a statement.
Studies have also found a significant connection between chronic sleep loss and increased risk for obesity. “Sleep restriction leads to hormonal alterations, which may favor an increase in calories intake and a decreased energy expenditure and ultimately lead to weight gain.”
In 2011, Warwick Medical School researchers reported finding not only an increased risk for stroke, but an increased risk for heart attacks and heart disease due to sleep loss. “There is an expectation in today’s society to fit more into our lives,” one researcher, Francisco Cappuccio, noted. “The whole work/life balance struggle is causing too many of us to trade in precious sleeping time to ensure we complete all the jobs we believe are expected of us. But in doing so, we are significantly increasing the risk of suffering a stroke or developing cardiovascular disease resulting in, for example, heart attacks.”
Finally, following up on past research suggesting a connection between less sleep and mortality, Penn State researchers studied more than 1,700 men and women and discovered that men who got less than six hours of sleep per night were significantly more likely to die than those who slept more—even when accounting for variables such as weight, alcohol and tobacco use, diabetes, and hypertension. (Women in this study were not found to be at higher risk; the authors recommended a larger study with a longer follow-up period to better understand women’s risk for death as it relates to insomnia.) Overall, however, the authors conclude that given the high prevalence of insomnia in our society and “the widespread misconception that this is a disorder of the ‘worried well,’ it’s diagnosis and appropriate treatment should become the target of public health policy.”