The Long-Term Dangers of Sleep Deprivation

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Do you struggle to get enough sleep? How dangerous is sleep deprivation from a long-term health perspective?

The dangers of sleep deprivation extend beyond feeling tired and being less productive. In the long term, sleep deprivation can seriously damage your health and increase your risk of a number of deadly diseases.

Here’s a look at the long-term dangers of sleep deprivation.

The Importance of Sleep: Refreshing Your Body

Long-term sleep deprivation impairs the body’s ability to regulate its blood glucose levels, leading to a higher risk of diabetes, and it can also cause hypertension and greatly weaken your immune system. Additionally, it can increase the risk of dementia and mental illnesses such as depression, and it can even interfere with our hormones and sex drive. 

(Shortform note: Sleep deprivation can also be damaging in the short term. The short-term dangers of sleep deprivation include headaches, gastrointestinal issues, and executive dysfunction. It can also impair your ability to deal with stress and manage your emotions. Additionally, it can worsen existing conditions: Sleep deprivation can increase the risk of seizures in people with epilepsy, for example.)

The authors share Walker’s advice on how to make sure you’re getting enough sleep, starting with figuring out if you are. If you still feel the need to sleep after your alarm goes off in the morning, or you find yourself sleeping a lot more on the weekends to pay off the sleep debt you’ve built up during the week, you may not be getting enough sleep on a regular basis. 

If your level of sleep deprivation seems severe, you should consult a doctor, but otherwise, you can improve your sleep by going to bed at the same time every night, keeping the temperature in your bedroom between 65 and 67 degrees Fahrenheit, cutting your caffeine intake, and avoiding too much light stimulation near bedtime—for example, by refraining from watching television or scrolling on your phone. Also, make sure you’re setting aside enough time to get a full night’s sleep. If you know you need eight hours of sleep, but you also know you tend to wake up once or twice during the night, be sure to take that into account when setting your bedtime and alarm.

Walker also says part of the reason sleep deprivation is so common is that people associate sleep with laziness and glorify sleep deprivation as a sign of a strong work ethic. This is particularly true in rich nations such as the United States, where eight in 10 people are sleep deprived, and Japan, where the statistic is nine in 10.

A Culture of Sleep Deprivation

A number of societal factors impact people’s ability to get enough sleep at night. The standard American workday that lasts from 9 am to 5 pm restricts people’s potential sleeping hours and requires them to use alarms to get up at times that may be earlier than what’s healthy for them. While this schedule may work well for people over 50, who tend to need less sleep and wake up earlier than those of a younger age, the majority of people don’t feel alert until after 9 am. This has negative consequences not only for people’s individual health, but it can also cost employers nearly $2,000 in productivity costs per year per employee.

School schedules also tend to negatively impact students’ sleep, as they usually start at 8 am, which forces students to get up very early in the morning. This is especially harmful because children and teens need more sleep than adults. Teens are particularly likely to be labeled lazy for their sleep needs, and they also tend to have later circadian rhythms, which causes them to need to go to sleep later and wake up later. Even if they set aside enough time to get a full night’s sleep, they may not be able to fall asleep until late at night. This can cause lower performance in school, a higher likelihood of traffic accidents, and an increased risk of suicidal ideation. 

Sleep disorders and differing circadian rhythms can also contribute to sleep deprivation and may be a reason to consult a doctor. People with delayed sleep phase disorder have natural sleeping and waking times that are two or more hours later than what is considered “normal” and often suffer from chronic sleep deprivation as a result. 

In fact, some research suggests that the standard of sleeping in one large chunk through the night, or monophasic sleeping, is unnatural for most people. This likely only became the standard as a result of industrialization, which came with artificial lighting and pressure to avoid wasting time. Historical records suggest that the norm used to be having a first sleep followed by a 1-2 hour period of wakefulness, and then a second sleep—a pattern called biphasic sleeping
The Long-Term Dangers of Sleep Deprivation

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Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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