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Understanding Sleep Deprivation

Last Updated on April 12, 2020 by Ashwini G

Sleep is one constant in your daily life. It is as natural as breathing, eating, and drinking. However, a lot of people try to skimp on sleep. There is plenty of debate floating around on why sleep is required and if sleep is required and ways in which to sleepless. The popular belief being that sleep is just hours lost, which you could be utilizing in something more productive. This article will clarify the importance of sleep and how this seemingly useless activity can have serious consequences for your health.

Lack of Sleep and Lack of Health

Breaking it down for your lack of sleep translates directly to a lack of health. There is no way that you can or even should attempt to bypass sleep. Sleep is a natural biological function that requires no efforts on your part and provides the much-needed rest to your body. It is recommended that an average adult clock in 7 to 9 hours of sleep daily to function properly. Remember, a healthy mind, body, and soul start with a night of healthy sleep.

The importance of sleep can be gauged by the study that established that sleep leads to early mortality rate. The other ways in which sleep deprivation or lack of sleep compromises the various body organ functions are enumerated below to turn even the most vicious sleep skeptic into a sleep fan:

Central Nervous System (CNS)

The CNS consists of your brain and the spinal cord. It is responsible for controlling and regulating the functions of both your mind and body. The brain is the central control of most of your bodily functions, including awareness, sensations, thoughts, actions, speech, and movements. Anything that hampers your CNS has serious consequences on your health. Sleep deprivation disrupts the way information is sent from the brain to other parts of the body, thereby disrupting body synchronization. This results in behavioral and cognitive impairments like:

  • Impulsive behavior
  • Hallucinations
  • Depression
  • Paranoia
  • Microsleep

Immune System

The immune system is your first line of defense against any invasion or threat to the body. While you sleep, your body produces “cytokines,” which help the immune system identify and fight the foreign particles effectively. Sleep deprivation not only causes low levels of cytokine production but also trigger stress, which in turn further compromises your immunity. Also, sleeplessness puts pressure on your immune system without allowing adequate rest to repair itself. Low immunity caused by sleep deprivation causes:

  • Frequent catching of common illnesses like cough and cold
  • More sick days as your body will take longer to heal
  • Unresponsiveness to medical treatment
  • Lower insulin resistance leading to diabetes
  • Heart diseases due to the body’s lower resistance to irritants and other triggers

Respiratory System

Sleep and respiratory system relationships go both ways. Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA) is a nighttime breathing disorder that affects the respiratory system and makes it difficult to sleep or stay asleep. This sleep deprivation, in turn, makes your respiratory system more prone to common infections like cold and flu. It can also make any existing lung conditions like asthma to worsen.

Digestive System

Sleep deprivation puts you at risk for:

  • Weight gain and Obesity: Sleep helps regulating and proper functioning of the two hormones responsible for appetite and hunger, namely:
  • Leptin
  • Ghrelin

These two hormones are responsible for signaling your brain to stop eating. When they don’t function properly, you tend to develop poor eating habits like emotional eating and also overeating, which over time, causes obesity. Sleep also increases fatigue, which in turn reduces your motivation for exercising. This lack of exercise, along with overeating, is the perfect recipe for weight gain and obesity.

  • Diabetes: Sleep deprivation reduces your body’s tolerance for insulin and compromises the way glucose is processed. This increases your risk of developing Type 2 diabetes.

Further sleep deprivation upsets the microbiology of your gut. This causes problems in digestion, including upset stomach, bloating, belching, etc.

Cardiovascular System

The cardiovascular system is also known as the circulatory system or the vascular system. It refers to:

  • Heart
  • Blood vessels
  • Blood

This system is responsible for the circulation of blood and the transportation of nutrients to different parts of the body. Sleep deprivation affects the processes that are responsible for keeping these blood vessels and heart-healthy like blood sugar, blood pressure, inflammation levels, and blood clotting. These compromise your heart functions and results in:

  • Heart Attack
  • Stroke

Endocrine System

Sleep deprivation affects the endocrine system by affecting the process of hormone production. The endocrine system is a set of glands that regulate hormone production in your body. Hormones are responsible for:

  • Regulating metabolism
  • Growth and development
  • Sexual function
  • Reproduction
  • Tissue function

Sleep deprivation results in shorter slow-wave sleep (SWS). This increases the pro-inflammatory cytokines in the body and hence low-grade inflammation. Sleep deprivation also causes significant hormonal changes affecting the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis activity. These result in:

Tips to Recover from Sleep Deprivation

Now that you know the profound effect that sleep has on your health, you must be wondering how to overcome sleep deprivation. The good news is that sleep deprivation is very easily reversible. All it takes is to get some added sleep.

It is also easy to discharge the effect of sleep deprivation on health but only in the short term. Chronic sleep deprivation is harder to challenge. Hence you must make an effort to rid yourself of sleep deprivation as quickly as possible. Some tips to help you with this are:

  • Avoid stimulants like caffeine and nicotine at least an hour before sleeping.
  • Keep the bedroom temperature cool. Research shows that it is easier for the body to sleep in cooler temperatures.
  • Minimize all light, sounds, and disturbances when going to bed
  • Avoid all sorts of technology for an hour before bedtime
  • Maintain a regular sleep-wake schedule
  • Exercise daily for at least 15 to 20 minutes
  • Indulge in stress-relieving activities like yoga and meditation
  • Take an afternoon nap

Sleep Deprivation FAQ Corner

What is sleep debt?

Sleep debt is calculated as the difference between the number of hours you should be sleeping and the number of hours you sleep. This difference in the number of sleep hours keeps getting stacked up over a period increasing your sleep debt and reducing your chances of successfully making up to the lost sleep hours.

How do you reduce your sleep debt?

The good thing about sleep deprivation is that it is easily reversible in the short run. You can make up for last night’s sleep the next day. Or even catch up on the weekends. However, the problem arises when you rack up over 20 hours of sleep debt. This pushes your body into the chronic sleep deprivation mode, affecting your regular bodily functions permanently. Research suggests that it takes you four days to recover from an hour of lost sleep in the long run.

Are sleep debt and sleep deprivation two separate things?

Sleep deprivation is different from sleep debt. Sleep deprivation is simply a term used for lack of sleep. Sleep debt, on the other hand, is the number of missed sleep hours that you have lost because of sleeplessness.

Can you die from sleep deprivation?

There is no conclusive study on humans that links certain death with sleep deprivation. However, research has shown that sleep deprivation can lead to a reduced life span.


Everyone suffers from sleep deprivation at one point or another. The trick is to nip it in the bud and not let your sleep debt accumulate into large numbers. Remember, the higher and more prolonged your sleep deprivation, the harder it is for your body to bounce back, and the worse the effects on your health.

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