The long-term health effects of sleep deprivation
Wednesday, November 23, 2016 by Chris Hocking
Earlier this month, I looked at the immediate effects of sleep deprivation – these short-term effects can set in even after just one night of poor sleep. They included forgetfulness, distraction, irritability (we’ve all felt grouchy after a bad night’s sleep), and impaired reaction times. You can read that blog post here.
Before you know it, one bad sleep has turned into three, and now, those poor quality sleeps are creeping their way into your schedule on a weekly basis.
Whether it’s shift work, an undiagnosed sleep condition, or a new baby at home keeping you up, long-term sleep deprivation can further propel the following health risks.
High blood pressure
There is a possible link between long-term sleep deprivation and higher blood pressure. The more hours of good quality sleep you get, the more reduced your chances of developing (or worsening existing) high blood pressure.
Sleep is an important part of our life that allows our body to regulate stress hormones, so if you’re getting less than six hours’ sleep, or getting poor quality sleep during these hours, you’re potentially stifling your body’s ability to regulate stress hormones, which as a result can raise your blood pressure.
A lack of sleep can increase your heart rate, raise your blood pressure, and overall, put a greater strain on your heart. This can lead to heart attack or stroke.
One-third of our life is spent sleeping… so why is it that sleep often doesn’t get the respect is deserves?
Short-term effects of sleep deprivation can include irritability and a loss of motivation, and when these continue to manifest, they can contribute to mood disorders, including depression.
And it works the other way, too: the onset of depression can lead to troubled sleep, including insomnia. In fact, disturbed sleep is often cited as a symptom of depression.
While sleep deprivation does not explicitly cause depression, it can be a contributing factor.
Melatonin and depression
As we know, melatonin is the hormone that regulates sleep in our bodies. Melatonin is what regulates our circadian rhythm (or “sleep-wake cycle”). This report explains how disrupted melatonin, resulting in anomalous circadian rhythms, is found in those with depression.
The more sleep deprived you are, the higher the levels of stress hormone, cortisol, in your body. You may be feeling more agitated, frustrated and stressed, and you may find that your appetite has increased. When sleep deprivation becomes habitual, changes in our metabolism leaves us with (often unhealthy) food cravings, and when we indulge, we notice the number on the scales gradually rising.
Ghrelin is a hormone produced in the stomach and it’s been found that sleep deprivation affects its production. When too much ghrelin is produced, it leaves us feeling hungry – ravenous, in fact – leading us to eat more, and with that sluggish feeling that we didn’t get enough sleep, we’re also less likely to exercise. The natural result of eating more and exercising less is, of course, weight gain.
Similarly, sleep deprivation leads to junk food cravings. After a poor night’s sleep, we may find ourselves craving more the next day… up to 400 calories more, in fact.
Sleep deprivation… as torture?
As outlandish as it may sound, sleep deprivation was, in fact, used a form of torture throughout history, including during witch trials in Scotland in the 16th century, by Russian researchers after WWII, and even in the US military as recently as 2009. Keep an eye out for an upcoming blog post that takes a closer look at how sleep deprivation has been used as torture – it’s as fascinating as it is disturbing.
Sleep deprivation to such extremes can lead to scary consequences. Torture victims experienced various health effects as well as paranoia and hallucinations.
Frightening psychiatric outcomes of long-term sleep deprivation includes paranoia and disorientation. As such, sleep deprivation can lead to symptoms of schizophrenia. Those who suffer from paranoia are described as having lost touch with reality, with feelings of jealousy, conspiracy, threat, mistrust, and fear.
Consider hallucinations like this: they are, in a sense, dreams that make their way into our “awake” world. When one experiences hallucinations, the lines between dreaming and reality are significantly blurred or disoriented. This distortion can contribute to paranoia.
More recently, in 2004, UK reality TV show Shattered pitted 10 contestants against each other for a chance to win £100,000… by depriving themselves of sleep for a week.
This show seemingly promoted very unhealthy habits and could be considered questionable in terms of ethics, especially as we’ve just touched on how sleep deprivation has been used unethically as torture in the past.
The show faced backlash from medical experts as well as the general public, and unsurprisingly, it lasted just one season. It is possibly more surprising it lasted a whole season.
Oh, and in case you’re interested, the show pushed contestants as far as they could for as long as possible: the final challenge to determine the winner was to allow the three remaining contestants to lie down, and whoever fell asleep last would be crowned the winner. The winner was a trainee police officer; she endured 178 hours of sleep deprivation.
The above health conditions – obesity, heart attacks, and so on – as well as the danger of a drowsiness-related accident in a vehicle can all lead to premature death. Sleep deprivation itself may not be a common cause of death; however the contribution it makes to overall health problems can lead to death.
We are thankfully guarded by strict ethical guidelines that would prevent researchers testing the relationship between sleep deprivation and death in human beings. Long-term sleep deprivation has caused death to lab rats though, so it does seem possible. There have also been reports of people dying after playing video games for days at a time, but these appear to be due to secondary effects on the heart and circulatory system due to a lack of physical activity.
Fatal familial insomnia
In extremely rare cases, a genetic abnormality can lead to total sleep deprivation, and eventually death. Approximately 40 families in the world carry the gene for this disease, which is caused by a protein mutation in the brain which prevents patients from going past stage one sleep – processes that are restorative of the body and brain occur in the later stages (3 & 4) of sleep.
The survival span for this disease after the onset of symptoms is just 18 months.
The effects of sleep deprivation behind the wheel
In my previous blog post which examined short-term sleep deprivation effects, I spoke about distraction and impaired reaction times. While on the surface these outcomes might seem more frustrating than life threatening, they’re in fact circumstantial. Impaired concentration during the workday might leave you feeling annoyed and guilty for a rather unproductive day in the office, but what about during that drive home after work?
Various industries place demanding schedules on employees. From medical staff to truck drivers and pilots, we know that in many industries, the typical 9am-5pm rarely exists. Keeping employees safe while they’re at work is one thing, but what about their commute to work and perhaps more significantly, their trip home after a long and demanding shift?
Optalert’s all-hour protection reduces the risk of a drowsiness-related incident at any hour of the day or night. Read more about our all-hour protection here.
Does your business need Optalert’s technology? Find out now if Optalert’s early-warning drowsiness detection technology is right for you.