By Dr. Mary O’Brien MD
When you’re scrambling to meet the countless demands in life, cutting back on sleep might seem like the only answer. Although you realize that getting a good night’s sleep is important, you might not realize the vital role sleep plays in our physical and emotional health. Not getting enough shuteye can have serious and even devastating consequences.
Unfortunately, sleep problems are quite common, and over 60% of Americans report having trouble getting to sleep or staying asleep at least a few nights a week. More troubling is the fact that over 40% of American adults report daytime sleepiness severe enough, at least a few days each month, to interfere with their daily activities.
During sleep, the brain is preparing itself for the next day—and even forming new neural pathways that help with learning, memory, and problem-solving. For teenagers and children, deep sleep actually stimulates the production of growth hormone which supports normal growth and development.
Sleep is also important in maintaining a healthy functioning heart, blood vessels, kidneys, and immune system. Emotional well-being—especially during times of stress—is also tied to getting enough sleep. The ability to react to stress without mood swings and undue anger, as well as the ability to get along with others, is affected by whether or not one gets enough sleep.
Lack of sleep causes not only fatigue, but also a wide range of health problems and disease. Chronic sleep deficiency can causes immune system dysfunction, making it difficult to fight infections. Insomnia can also lead to problematic changes in the endocrine system, which may exacerbate diseases such as diabetes. And sleep problems can lead to abnormalities in the central nervous system and cardiovascular system. Children and adults who don’t get enough sleep, for instance, are at increased risk for a host of emotional ailments, including depression, mood swings, impulsivity, and anxiety.
Below are just a few of the health problems that can result from lack of sleep:
- Kidney disease
- Chronic Pain
Many people think they can function well even with sleep deficits. But scientific research reveals that the opposite is true. After just several nights of not getting enough sleep—with a loss of 1 to 2 hours of sleep per night—your ability to function declines as much as if you hadn’t slept for a day or two.
Research has also shown that people who don’t get enough sleep take longer to finish tasks, have a slower reaction time, and are more likely to make mistakes. They also have difficulty making decisions, are less creative than those who get enough sleep, have a hard time controlling emotions and behavior, and suffer declines in their problem-solving abilities. So not only does lack of sleep compromise alertness and physical health, it can also reduce productivity at work and decrease one’s ability to weather life’s stresses.
When sleep is compromised, the body’s ability to heal, repair, and restore itself can be impaired. Blood pressure fluctuations, adrenaline production, and hormone synthesis are affected —and impede our ability to bounce back from the physical stresses of normal life. When sleep deficits persist for an extended length of time, these disruptions in normal bodily function can push a vulnerable organ system from health into disease.
The bottom line is that we live in a sleep deprived world. Sleep is good for your mind, body, and spirit. In the words of Homer — “There is a time for many words, and there is also a time for sleep.”