Health Risks of Sleep Deprivation

By Bonnie Jenkins, Advanced Natural Wellness

Feel groggy and grumpy? Is your brain in a fog? It’s common to feel like this if you’re running on too little sleep. But not getting enough sleep can have implications far beyond our general mood. For the nearly 50 million Americans who don’t get enough sleep, there are a number of health risks that are linked to sleep deprivation.

I’m not talking about simply being “run down” and more susceptible to colds and flu. I’m talking about the big stuff—heart disease and diabetes. Getting too little shut-eye may even contribute to our nation’s growing obesity epidemic!

Eight Is Great

Don’t underestimate the health benefits of a good night’s sleep. When you think of sleep, you may think it’s a time of inactivity—when your body can wind down from the day’s events. But that’s not the case. When we sleep soundly, there is a whirlwind of activity inside our bodies as it repairs muscles, releases hormones, bolsters immunity, and energizes cells. So you can see how a lack of sleep can set you up for chronic disease.

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For example, women getting fewer than five hours of sleep each night are one-third more likely to develop diabetes, say Harvard researchers who conducted a far-ranging 10-year sleep study of more than 70,000 women. The reasons that sleep problems might be connected to diabetes isn’t clear, but researchers think that too little sleep may reduce levels of leptin, a hormone that tells us to stop eating. Essentially, sleep loss may cause you to want to eat more than your body needs. After going without enough sleep for two nights, people in one study had more of the hunger-inducing hormone ghrelin and less of the appetite-suppressing leptin.

And then there’s heart disease. A University of Chicago study found that inadequate sleep caused levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, to rise in the afternoon and evening—increasing heart rate, blood pressure, and blood glucose. If your sleep loss is caused by sleep apnea, your risk of heart disease is even higher. Sleep apnea is a known risk factor for the development of hypertension, heart disease, and stroke.

A study published in the journal Sleep showed that daytime sleepiness brought on by obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) may subtly impair cardiac function. Plus, data from the Sleep Heart Health Study show that people with sleep apnea have a 45 percent greater risk for hypertension, a major predictor for cardiovascular disease, than people without the sleep disorder.

Snooze and Lose

More and more studies are linking weight gain with sleep loss. A recent study in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine suggests that adults should sleep eight to nine hours per night to help maintain a healthy weight. One theory is that lack of sleep disrupts hormones, such as leptin and insulin, which regulate appetite and body weight. Another explanation is that sleep deprivation leaves us too tired for exercise. And since losing sleep can also make us moody, we may turn to food to cheer us up.

According to the International Journal of Obesity, people who are sleep-deprived have more body fat than those who sleep well, even after researchers adjusted for sleep apnea, insomnia, and daytime sleepiness. In other words, even if you don’t have a diagnosed sleep disorder, you can still experience the damaging affects of sleep deprivation. The researchers also found that shortened sleep cycles were associated with a higher body fat percentage, as well as a wider waistline.

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The reason is simple. While we sleep, chemicals and hormones that help control appetite are released. If we are not sleeping soundly, those chemical messengers and hormones are disrupted, which can cause us to gain weight. Getting a good night’s sleep on a routine basis, however, may support a healthy weight.

Simple Sleep Remedies

Now that you know why it’s important to sleep well, here are some tricks that can help you get your zzz’s:

Have a bedtime snack. A light bedtime snack can stave off hunger, a known sleep robber. But eating high-glycemic-index (GI) carbohydrates hours earlier at dinner might also help. (High-GI foods cause a greater rise in blood sugar and insulin than do lower-GI foods.) A recent paper in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that when healthy sleepers ate carbohydrate-rich suppers of veggies and tomato sauce over rice, they fell asleep significantly faster at bedtime if the meal included high-GI jasmine rice rather than lower-GI long-grain rice. While the authors aren’t sure how it happened, they speculated that the greater amounts of insulin triggered by the high-GI meals increased the ratio of tryptophan relative to other amino acids in the blood, allowing proportionately more to get into the brain. Save high-GI carbs for dinnertime, when their side effect drowsiness is a plus.

Cut out all caffeine. Caffeine affects everyone differently, so if you’re sensitive, it might be worth trying to cut down or limit caffeine to the morning only. This can mean more than just cutting out a cup of coffee. The major sources of caffeine in Americans’ diets are coffee (71 percent), soft drinks (16 percent), and teas (12 percent), but chocolate is also a source. Our ability to excrete caffeine decreases with age, so while you might have tolerated four cups of coffee a day when you were 20, you’ll probably need to cut down as you get older. Cut down on caffeine or limit it to the morning; if insomnia persists, consider going cold turkey.

Take a sleep supplement. Melatonin is best known as a natural cure for jet lag; however, many studies have shown it to be very effective for insomnia. Sleep supplements work naturally with your body’s sleep chemistry to induce high-quality sleep.

One Last Thing …

Sleepless nights breed decreased reaction times—making driving (among other things) dangerous. A surprising National Sleep Foundation survey indicates that nearly 100 million sleepy Americans hop into their vehicles every day. And each year, more than 100,000 motor vehicle crashes resulting in 1,550 deaths and 71,000 injuries are directly linked to drivers who fall asleep at the wheel. The U.S. Congress is considering a bill that may put a stop to drowsy drivers. The bill, dubbed “Maggie’s Law” (HR968), is named in memory of Maggie McDonnell, a college student who was killed by a sleep-deprived truck driver. It would create traffic safety programs to be aimed at drowsy drivers.


Ayas NT, et al. A Prospective Study of Self-Reported Sleep Duration and Incident Diabetes in Women . Diabetes Care. 2003;26:380-384.

Bradley TD, et al. Obstructive sleep apnoea and its cardiovascular consequences. Lancet. 2009;373:82-93.

Rooks DS, et al. Effect of preoperative exercise on measures of functional status in men and women undergoing total hip and knee arthroplasty. Arthritis Care & Research. 2006;55: 700-708.

The Sleep Heart Health Study: 10 Year Cardiovascular Disease Incidence and Mortality. Available at

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