Sleep and your health
As life gets more hectic, it is all too easy to go without sleep. In fact, many Americans only get 6 hours of sleep a night or less.
You need ample sleep to help restore your brain and body. Not getting enough sleep can be bad for your health in a number of ways.
Why you Need Sleep
Sleep gives your body and brain time to recover from the stresses of the day. After a good night's sleep, you perform better and are better at making decisions. Sleep can help you feel more alert, optimistic, and get along with people better. Sleep also helps your body ward off disease.
How Much Sleep do you Need
Different people need different amounts of sleep. Most adults need 7 to 8 hours of sleep a night for good health and mental functioning. Some adults need up to 9 hours a night.
Why you Might not get Enough Sleep
There are many reasons why sleep is in such short supply.
- Busy schedules. Evening activities, whether it is work or social, are one of the top reasons people do not get enough sleep.
- Poor sleep environment. It is a lot harder to get a good night's sleep in a bedroom with too much noise or light, or that is either too cold or too warm.
- Electronics. Tablets and cell phones that ring and beep throughout the night disrupt sleep. They can also make it impossible to disconnect from the waking world.
- Medical conditions. Some health conditions can prevent deep sleep. These include arthritis, back pain, heart disease, and conditions such as asthma that make it hard to breathe. Depression, anxiety, and substance abuse also make sleep hard to come by. Some medicines disrupt sleep.
- Stress about sleeping. After several nights of tossing and turning, just being in bed can make you anxious and awake, even when you are very tired.
Sleep problems are a big reason why many people can't get enough sleep. Treatment can help in many cases.
- Insomnia, occurs when you have trouble falling asleep or sleeping through the night. It is the most common sleep disorder. Insomnia can last for a night, a couple of weeks, or for months on end.
- Sleep apnea is a condition in which your breathing pauses throughout the night. Even if you do not wake up all the way, sleep apnea repeatedly interrupts deep sleep.
- Restless legs syndrome can keep you awake with the desire to move your legs anytime you are resting. Often restless legs syndrome comes with uncomfortable feelings such as burning, tingling, itching, or creeping in your legs.
You tuck yourself under the covers, turn out the light, and look forward to eight hours of blissful slumber. But, after turning for hours you're still exhausted, and no closer to sleep than when you first got into bed. Let's talk toady about sleep disorders. Sleep disorders fall into four basic categories. The scenario I described, in which you toss and turn because you can't fall asleep, is called insomnia. Another type of insomnia is when you wake up in the middle of the night and can't get back to sleep. Sometimes people get insomnia for a night or two because they're stressed out over a big meeting at work, or they're excited about an upcoming trip. Others can't sleep night after night, and that's called chronic insomnia. People with the second category of sleep disorders have a hard time staying awake during the day, even if they slept well the night before. This is called hypersomnia. Sometimes doctors can't find a cause for hypersomnia. But in many cases, a health condition like fibromyalgia, a thyroid problem, a disease like mononucleosis, obesity, or obstructive sleep apnea, can make you sleepy. If you notice a co-worker is nodding off in the middle of meetings, he might have narcolepsy, a sleep disorder that causes people to sleep uncontrollably at inappropriate times during the day. Narcolepsy isn't only embarrassing, it can be dangerous if you nod off behind the wheel of a car. A sleep rhythm problem means that you can't stick to a normal sleep schedule. Maybe you work the night shift at your job, or you're always traveling to different time zones and are constantly battling jet lag. Well, whatever the cause, the lack of a normal sleep pattern is called a sleep rhythm disorder. And finally, there are the types of sleep disorders that wake you up with a jolt in the middle of the night, and, these are called parasomnias, and they can severely interrupt your sleep. You may walk in your sleep, or act out your dreams. Children often have night terrors, in which they wake up from a deep sleep in a terrified state. The good news is that you don't have to live on fewer hours of sleep, because there are decent treatments for sleep disorders. If you're struggling to sleep throughout the night, and dragging through the day as a result, talk to your doctor, who can refer you to a sleep specialist for an evaluation.
Sleep and Safety
Lack of sleep affects more than just the person who is short on shut-eye. Fatigue has been linked to accidents both large and small. Overtiredness led to the human errors behind several large disasters including the Exxon-Valdez oil spill and the Chernobyl nuclear accident. Poor sleep has contributed to numerous airplane crashes.
Each year, up to 100,000 car accidents and 1,550 deaths are caused by exhausted drivers. Drowsy driving impairs alertness and reaction time as much as driving while drunk.
Lack of sleep can also make it harder to stay safe on the job. It can lead to medical errors and industrial accidents.
Sleep and Your Health
Without enough sleep, your brain may struggle to perform basic functions. You may find it hard to concentrate or remember things. You may become moody and lash out at co-workers or people you love.
Just as your brain needs sleep to restore itself, so does your body. When you do not have enough sleep, your risk goes up for several illnesses.
- Diabetes. Your body does not do as well controlling blood sugar when you do not get enough sleep.
- Heart disease. Lack of sleep can lead to high blood pressure and inflammation, two things that can damage your heart.
- Obesity. When you do not get enough rest from sleep, you are more prone to overeat. It is also harder to resist foods high in sugar and fat.
- Infection. Your immune system needs you to sleep so it can fight colds and keep you healthy.
- Mental health. Depression and anxiety often make it hard to sleep. They also can become worse after a string of sleepless nights.
When to Call the Doctor
Talk with your health care provider if you are often tired during the day, or lack of sleep makes it hard to do daily activities. There are treatments available to improve sleep.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Sleep and sleep disorders.
Drake CL, Wright KP, Cheng P. Shift work, shift-work disorder,jet lag and jet lag disorder. In: Kryger M, Roth T, Goldstein CA, Dement WC, eds. Principles and Practice of Sleep Medicine. 7th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2022:chap 81.
Sullivan SS, Carskadon MA, Dement WC, Jackson CL. Normal human sleep: an overview. In: Kryger M, Roth T, Goldstein CA, Dement WC, eds. Principles and Practice of Sleep Medicine. 7th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2022:chap 2.
Van Dongen HPA, Balkin TJ, Hursh SR, Dorrian J. Performance deficits during sleep loss and their operational consequences. In: Kryger M, Roth T, Goldstein CA, Dement WC, eds. Principles and Practice of Sleep Medicine. 7th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2022:chap 79.
Last reviewed on: 8/11/2022
Reviewed by: Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Clinical Professor, Department of Family Medicine, UW Medicine, School of Medicine, University of Washington, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David C. Dugdale, MD, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.