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Is Sleep Deprivation Preventing You From Reaching Optimal Health?

This probably won’t come as a surprise when we tell you that sleep is good for you. But did you know that a lack of sleep, even over the course of one week, can have extremely detrimental effects throughout your entire body? And did you know that poor sleep can increase your risk of heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and even a shortened life span?

In this blog, we’ll explain why you need 8 hours a night and how to get it.

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Sleep 101:

As mentioned above, getting enough sleep is vital to the health of your entire body. However, according to a recent study, 1 in 3 people suffer from poor sleep- stress, technology, and working from home are often blamed. Further, the pandemic has appeared to make poor sleep more common, even for those who previously had healthy sleep schedules.

It is typically recommended that adults receive 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night. During those hours of sleep, the body cycles through four sleep stages. They are as follows:

  • The transition from wakefulness to sleep

  • Light sleep

  • Deep sleep

  • Rapid eye movement (REM) sleep

The length of each phase varies as you sleep throughout the night. You have longer deep sleep during the first 4 to 5 hours of sleep and longer REM sleep and lighter sleep as dreams occur and the morning approaches. Once you transition out of deep sleep and into lighter sleep, you are more easily awakened.

But our 8-hour sleep cycle is a relatively new phenomenon, it can be traced back to the Industrial Revolution, when people in Western countries began to shift their sleep regiments from two segments into one. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, people broke their sleep time into two segments, called first sleep and second sleep. Two segment sleep cycles involved a shorter sleep at night and a midday nap. But after the Industrial Revolution, sleep was clumped into one longer interval to allow us to work throughout the day.

What happens when we sleep:

It is impossible to reach optimal health without a healthy sleep cycle. In fact, sleep is so important that we spend around 1/3 of our life asleep! This is because, while we may be sleeping through it, our bodies are undertaking some seriously vital tasks. Some of these functions include:

  • Energy conservation → We need sleep to conserve energy, according to the energy conservation theory. Research suggests that sleeping 8 hours will produce energy savings of 35% more than what we produce when we’re awake. Our bodies can store this energy because our metabolic rate drops when we sleep, which lowers our caloric energy. This stored energy allows us to be more efficient and productive throughout the day.

  • Cellular restoration → The sleep restorative theory supposes that our bodies repair themselves as we sleep. This theory postulates that cells are able to repair and regrow as we snooze. This is because many processes occur during sleep, including protein synthesis, tissue growth, hormone release, and muscle repair.

  • Brain capacity → While we sleep, according to the brain plasticity theory, our nerve cells, or neurons, reorganize themselves. Your glymphatic (waste removal) system also empty’s your brain of waste and other toxic byproducts as you sleep. This helps your brain to function better the next day. When you're sleeping, your brain also converts short-term memories into long-term memories, which helps to clear unuseful information that could otherwise clutter the nervous system. Sleep also affects many more features of brain capacity, including:

    • Memory

    • Creativity

    • Learning

    • Decision making

    • Concentration

    • Problem-solving skills

    • Focus

  • Mental health → Sleep is also extremely vital in emotional health, partially because as you sleep, brain activity increases in areas that help to regulate emotional stability. One of such areas is the amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for the fear response. When you don’t get enough sleep, the amygdala is more likely to overreact and not have an adaptive response. Moreover, time and time again, research has proven that sleep has a massive impact on mental health.

  • Immune system functioning → Sleep is one of the biggest factors in having a healthy immune system. Sleep deprivation has been proved to inhibit the immune response and cause your body to be more susceptible to certain germs. This is because when you sleep, your body produces infection and inflammation-fighting proteins, called cytokines. This is why you tend to be more sleepy when you’re sick, your body is craving those restful hours to produce more germ-fighting cells.

  • Heart health → Researchers aren’t totally sure why sleep helps improve heart health. But research has preven a connection between poor sleep and heart disease. The CDC cites that 7 hours of sleep is necessary for optimal heart health. Without proper sleep, your risk of factors contributing to heart disease increases, such as high blood pressure, increased inflammation, weight gain, insulin resistance, and elevated cortisol levels.

What happens when we don’t sleep:

So, now that you know what happens when you do sleep, what about what happens when you don’t get those critical 8 hours? Sleep deprivation increases the risk of a number of different medical conditions.

  • A lack of sleep increases your risk of developing high blood pressure, stroke, type II diabetes, and heart disease.

  • People who suffer from chronic sleep loss are more likely to develop dementia in their old age. One study found that those who sleep 6 hours or less were 30% more likely to develop dementia 30 years later.

  • If you experience prolonged sleep deprivation, you could start having hallucinations, or trigger mania if you have bipolar disorder. Other psychological risks of poor sleep include anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, paranoia, and impulsive behavior.

  • Sleep deprivation affects hormone production. It can also affect the production of human growth hormone, which helps the body to build muscle growth and repair tissues and cells.

  • Poor sleep can lead to weight gain. This is because the two hunger hormones, leptin and ghrelin, are affected by sleep. Leptin tells the body when you’re full and ghrelin stimulates your appetite. One study found that shorter sleepers tend to have higher body mass indexes than those who have a healthy sleep cycle.

The sleep sweet spot:

So, now you know why sleep is so important to your health. But you might be wondering how much sleep you need to get. Surprisingly, more sleep isn’t always better. In fact, to achieve optimal health, research suggests that the sweet spot lies between 6 to 8 hours a night.

One study found that those who slept less than four hours and over eight hours had the highest mortality rates. The study followed nearly 70,000 nurses. Those who slept 8 hours had the lowest risk of developing heart disease. However, a similar study suggested that more sleep is not always better. This study followed nearly 90,000 women for around 25 years. According to this research, those who slept 9 hours or more per night were twice as likely to develop Parkinson’s disease as those who slept 6 hours or less.

Another study further suggests that the sweet spot for sleep lies between 6 to 8 hours per night. The University of California and the American Cancer Society led a 6-year study of over one million American adults aged 30-102. This study found a U-shaped curve, with the highest mortality rates among those who slept less than 4 hours or over 8 hours a night. So, to optimize your health, you should aim for around 7 hours a night.

How to correct your sleep schedule:

Unfortunately, research has demonstrated that sleep cannot simply be caught up on during the weekends. Further, If you have been sleeping poorly for several months, you have a large sleep debt that will take several weeks to recover. One great way to start recouping your sleep is by adding an extra 2 hours of sleep on the weekends. Go to sleep when you feel tired and allow your body to wake up naturally, foregoing the alarm clock. While you may sleep 12+ hours the first night, you will gradually end up with a natural sleep cycle.

Having healthy sleep hygiene is another way to ensure that when you do sleep, you're getting a quality snooze. Bad sleep is only marginally better than no sleep at all. Here are our top recommendations for your best night of sleep:

  • Increase bright light during the day- Bright light in the daytime will bolster your body’s circadian rhythm. One study found that for people with insomnia, bright light in the day reduced the time it took to fall asleep by 83%.

  • Reduce blue light in the evenings- Too much light in the evenings can trick your circadian rhythm into thinking it’s still daytime. Blue light especially has a reputation for disrupting sleep patterns.

  • Avoid caffeine in the afternoon- When you drink caffeine, you stimulate your nervous system. This can stop your body from entering relaxation mode at night. One study found that consuming caffeine 6 hours before bed significantly negatively impacted sleep quality.

  • Don’t take long or irregular daytime naps- While short, “power” naps have proven to be beneficial, irregular or long naps can worsen your sleep at night. Daytime naps can confuse your body’s internal clock, leading to insomnia or frequent wake-ups at night. One study found that daytime naps can cause people to feel sleepier.

  • Avoid alcohol at night- Alcohol can cause or increase symptoms of snoring, disrupted sleep, and sleep apnea. Alcohol also alters your circadian rhythm by disrupting melatonin production. One study found that nighttime alcohol consumption decreases natural elevations in human growth hormone, which impacts your circadian rhythm and helps to build muscle, burn fat, and build healthy tissues.

  • Keep your bedroom cool- A high bedroom temperature has been found to disrupt sleep more than external noises. Studies have found that when you and your bedroom are hot, sleep quality will decrease and wakefulness will increase.

  • Keep your exercise during the day- Studies have found that exercise can enhance all sleep aspects and reduce symptoms of insomnia. For those with severe insomnia, exercise works better than most sleeping aids. One study demonstrated that daytime exercise reduced time to fall asleep by 55%, anxiety by 15%, and total sleep time by 18%.

For more information on sleeping through the night or starting to build healthy sleep hygiene, click here to contact us or call 276-235-3205 to schedule your complimentary discovery call.

The Johnson Center for Health services patients in-person in our Blacksburg and Virginia Beach / Norfolk locations. We also offer telemedicine for residents of Virginia and North Carolina!


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