Why lack of sleep is your personal health crisis

Sleep experts, doctors and the media extol the benefits of sleep and why we should get more of it.

Yawning woman

Photo source: Thinkstock

Unfortunately, we don’t seem to be listening.

About 41 million people in the US – that’s about one third of working adults – reported sleeping less than six hours a night according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It’s such a concern, that the CDC has declared insufficient sleep as a public health epidemic.

Our busy society

I remember trying to rebel against sleep as a kid. I thought I was missing out. My parents always seemed to say it was “bedtime” when I was having the most fun.

As an adult, no one is there to tell me it’s “bedtime,” and I find myself trying to cram more into the day. There is always some task to finish or work to be done before I let myself turn off the lights.

For those of us who have finally finished that last bit of work on our never-ending to-do list, there’s the Internet and social media to distract us. (Is anyone else addicted to Pinterest and Facebook, like me?)

Maybe that’s why the National Department of Transportation believes drowsy driving causes more than 1,500 fatalities and 40,000 non-fatal injuries every year in the US. Studies have shown that drowsiness can affect driving like alcohol – if not more so – because it can lead to less:

  • Vigilance
  • Reaction time
  • Memory
  • Coordination
  • Information processing
  • Decision making

Sleep is a big deal

As I was researching this article, I was stunned by how deeply sleep can affect our overall health – not just our daytime behaviors.

Sleep deprivation can literally touch every aspect of our health.

So how much sleep should you get? The National Sleep Foundation says there is no magic number – the right amount of sleep varies by person and age. But on average, adults need 7 to 9 hours of sleep a night.

Sleep and your weight

How much sleep you get appears to affect levels of hormones that tell us when to feel hungry or full. These hormones – ghrelin and leptin – work together to stimulate appetite or tell you to stop eating. Some medical studies have shown that sleep deprivation upsets those levels.

“These hormones are a major influence in regulating the body’s energy balance,” said Kim Fry, health educator for ADC’s Weight Loss and Health Risk Management program. “When out of sync, these hormones, along with other hormones and neurotransmitters, appear to impair the body’s metabolism, potentially affecting obesity and weight loss.”

Leptin levels can go down when you don’t sleep – which means you may not feel as full after a meal. Less sleep can also send ghrelin levels up, stimulating your appetite.

Research suggests that people who sleep less weigh more than those who sleep more.

Sleep and illness

A lack of sleep may also affect your immune system and raise your risk for developing illness and disease.

“Sleep is essential for the body’s recovery from everyday stress, wear and tear,” said Dr. Sujata Jere, ADC Family Practice.

Studies have shown that people who sleep less are more likely to get sick.

That may be due to a weakened immune system and how well the body can respond to viruses and bacteria.

Some studies have suggested that poor sleep, such as insomnia, can lead to disease because of higher levels of cytokines, which cause an inflammatory response in the body.

Sleep and pregnancy

Thanks in part to changing hormone levels, pregnancy may worsen existing sleep disorders, including restless leg syndrome and obstructive sleep apnea.

Sleep apnea, where breathing is interrupted during sleep, has been linked to complications like

  • Gestational hypertension
  • Preeclampsia
  • Low birth weight

Dr. Angela Meyer, ADC OB/GYN, says studies have been limited, but some have shown that women can experience sleeping difficulty with pregnancy as early as 12 weeks. It can last through the first two months post-partum.

This includes difficulty falling asleep, frequent awakenings and overall fewer hours of sleep during this time.

“For my own patients, I recommend that if they have a persistent problem, it is acceptable to take an occasional Unisom (doxylamine) or Benadryl during the pregnancy just before bedtime, if needed,” Dr. Meyer said. “If this is not providing sufficient relief, then I recommend that they consult with their OB. There may be prescription medications that could be an option.”

Sleep and heart health

Your heart has a chance to rest when you sleep. That means cutting back on sleep can make the heart work a lot harder and raise your risk for heart disease.

Research presented in 2012 at the American College of Cardiology conference in Chicago found that adults who slept fewer than 6 hours at night were at greater risk for stroke, heart attack, and congestive heart failure. It was not the first study to show the link between heart disease and sleep, but it was one of the largest, by analyzing information from more than 3,000 adults.

Other studies have linked sleep deprivation to higher levels of stress hormones, blood pressure and a higher resting heart rate.

What do you do when you can’t turn your mind off at night to sleep? Dr. Joseph Imsais, ADC cardiologist, says developing a good sleep routine is key.

  • Don’t eat two to three hours before to sleep.
  • Try to go to bed around the same time.
  • Dim lights, turn of electronic devices: TV, cell phone, tablets.
  • Exercise routinely.

“Exercise does wonders,” Dr. Imsais said. “Exercise has many benefits such as combating stress, exhausting the body and eventually letting you get more efficient sleep.”

Sleep is important

Fortunately, I don’t have insomnia, obstructive sleep apnea or other sleep disorders to keep me up at night. My issue with sleep is that I’m just incredibly busy, and I have thought I could power through to get things done.

But sleep is important. We need it to help us stay healthy in so many ways.

So the next time I’m tempted to stay up late to surf the web, I’ll need to remember that sleep isn’t an inconvenience. It’s integral to my health.




    I know I do not get enough sleep. At 73 years of age, I just don’t go to bed. I read, watch TV, quilt, sew…do anything rather than sleep. I feel like when I sleep I am wasting time. Not so per this article.

    My question to you is how do you train yourself to sleep all night. I wake up maybe 4 to 6 times a night. So I haven’t gone to sleep early enough, don’t sleep during the night and love to get up early and get out of the bed which I hate and start my day.

    I have a great tempur-pedic mattress so it’s not as if I am not comfortable. I just hate to sleep.

    You talk about how bad too little sleep is but you never tell me what to do to change my sleep habits. I will do anything but just don’t know what ‘anything’ is.


    • Hi there — that is a great question! I will forward your question to one of our doctors to find out the answer for you. I may also do additional research and write an article on that topic. Thanks for your comment!