Most people don’t get enough sleep.
Missing out on the recommended 7 to 9 hours of shut-eye nightly does more than just make you feel groggy and grumpy. The long term effects of sleep deprivation are real. It drains your mental abilities and puts your physical health at real risk.
In the long term, chronic sleep deprivation may lead to a host of health problems including obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and even early mortality.
Research has demonstrated that sleep deprivation carries dire consequences—and conversely that prioritizing sleep can dramatically improve your health.
Let’s unpack some of the risks that come with not getting enough proper sleep.
Why America is terrible at sleeping
(and the consequences we suffer)
The CDC reports that 1 out of every 3 Americans is sleep-deprived.
And by the way, leading experts in the neuroscience of sleep define “sleep deprivation” as sleeping less than seven hours per night. So if you think you perform perfectly fine with five, four, or even fewer hours of nightly sleep…you might want to think again.
Matthew Walker, Ph.D., the founder and director of the Center for Human Sleep Science at the University of California, Berkeley, warns ominously that “no aspect of our biology is left unscathed by sleep deprivation.”
Despite such warnings, sleep deprivation remains troublingly prevalent in America. After all, busy-ness, alertness, and productivity are continually cast in a positive light. Sleeplessness is often touted as a badge of honor, especially in the fast-paced worlds of business and entrepreneurship—oftentimes, healthy sleep habits are even seen as a sign of weakness and sub-par performance.
Luckily, a growing number of prominent business figures are doing their part to change this ingrained cultural behavior, mostly because they’ve all experienced firsthand just how detrimental long-term sleep deprivation can be.
Make no mistake: performance will always wane in the long-run if you get fewer than seven hours of sleep per night. It’s just not worth it (or possible) to cheat your body out of its fundamental biological needs.
And decreased performance is just the tip of the iceberg. Here’s some of the risks of sleep deprivation that researchers have discovered.
Cognitive decline. Many researchers believe that poor sleep can significantly increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. One study showed that even a week of sleep deprivation causes an increase in amyloid-beta plaque deposits (one of the core risk factors for Alzheimer’s).
Depression. The brain imbalances caused by sleep deprivation can also lead to depression and other mood disorders. A study in the Journal of Neuroscience examined the connection between insomnia, depression, and the brain’s reward centers. The researchers reported a conclusive link between sleep disturbance and depression—and while they found that reward center activation can help attenuate sleep-deprivation-induced depression, avoiding sleep deprivation in the first place is still a wiser choice.
Chronic pain. A study published in Sleep Medicine Reviews suggests that sleep deprivation makes you two to three times more likely to develop a chronic pain condition, and also that it can exacerbate previously existing conditions.
Increased disease risk. Studies indicate that poor sleep is linked with an increased risk for a wide range of chronic and degenerative diseases, including diabetes and other metabolic issues, cancer, heart disease, and reproductive issues.
Proper sleep hygiene
Getting enough high-quality sleep is very simple in principle—but if you’ve accustomed yourself to believing that “there’s not enough time for sleep” or that you “just don’t need that much sleep,” you may need to do some work to change your mindset.
Once you’re a believer in the detrimental effects of sleep deprivation, all you need to do is commit to at least seven hours of sleep on a nightly basis (eight hours is ideal). If possible, try to figure out the length of your sleep cycle, which will determine what sleep duration is best for you.
Waking up in the middle of a sleep cycle will leave you feeling much groggier, even if you slept for a longer period. Timing sleep according to your natural sleep cycles is one way to “hack” the amount of sleep you need—but don’t get carried away; remember that anything under seven hours is still considered sleep deprivation.
If you have trouble falling asleep, try avoiding computer and phone screens (as well as any other sources of blue light) for at least an hour or two before bedtime. Try to be in bed before 11:00pm, because our bodies tend to release a natural cascade of adrenal hormones around this time if we’re not already asleep.