How Sleep Affects Health and Chronic Conditions

توضیح مختصر: This lesson explores the effects of missing out on sleep. We examine the general issues that happen when a person misses out on sleep, as well as how sleep debt can compound chronic health conditions.

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I’m a bit of an insomniac. Not the fun kind who stays up all night and gets work done. No, the kind who stays awake for long periods of time while lying in bed. I just stare into the darkness thinking, always thinking about my day or the next day, or a week, or a month or a year from now.

Sleep is a natural, multistage suspension of consciousness during which time the body goes through restorative or maturational changes. It’s a bit of a mouthful to say, and it’s also not 100% accurate. We don’t really know exactly what sleep is or the exact evolutionary reason we developed it.

While we aren’t conscious, our brain isn’t deactivated. When we sleep, our brain is just as active as when we were awake, just differently. It goes through a series of stages that we can track by measuring brain activity. But the complexity and wonder of the cognitive aspects of sleeping is for another lesson. What we need to focus on is the changes that occur to the brain and body as we sleep. Let’s go over exactly what happens to the body if we don’t sleep, and then look and see how it makes chronic conditions even worse.

Sleep and the Body

Let’s say you work at a manufacturing job, and you’re suddenly assigned to the night shift. Now instead of working 9 to 5, you’re working midnight to 8 am. You can basically say goodbye to any kind of normal sleep schedule.

First off, sleep loss reduces attentional capacity. So, our worker at the factory is likely to make more mistakes and worse mistakes the longer he works at night. While you may be as sharp as a tack and focused during the day, the lack of sleep means you won’t be able to pay as much attention to what you’re doing. We’ve all felt a little of this when we pull all-nighters, and the next day our brain feels soupy and foggy.

This makes you more prone to accidents, and worse, your intelligence will actually diminish. You just aren’t as smart when you don’t have enough sleep. More reason not to pull an all-nighter studying. This is likely due to the recovery nature of sleep, where neurotransmitters are replenished and the systems are fortified in the brain.

In addition to making it harder to pay attention, sleep issues can also cause problems with a person’s sexual drive. Lack of sleep can reduce sex drive, which causes all kinds of problems in and of itself. Our worker example may start to have problems with desire and sexual arousal the longer he stays at the night job. This is likely due to the regulating nature of sleep, where hormones and blood flow are increased to various parts of the body. Many men with sleep apnea, a condition that causes people to stop breathing as they sleep, have been found to have reduced testosterone.

When we don’t sleep well, we don’t feel well. This translates to a loss of sleep and causes an increase in the stress hormone cortisol. This means our workers have an overreaction to minor stressors, and may actually break down when bigger stressors occur. Cortisol is a nasty, horrible little hormone that we make. In the short run, it allows for us to unlock energy stores and give us an extra boost of strength and agility. The problem is, if it sticks around in our blood stream, it is very caustic and can begin to break down tissues and organs, particularly in the skin and the memory consolidating part of the brain.

Sleep & Conditions

Sometimes we have stuff that is wrong with us that just doesn’t go away. A chronic disease is a condition that develops more slowly and typically worsens over time. Examples of this include heart disease, kidney issues and diabetes. And as we just discussed, the lack of sleep really has a detrimental effect on a person.

Looking at chronic diseases, lack of sleep increases the risk and severity of heart disease, heart attack, heart failure, irregular heartbeat, high blood pressure, stroke and diabetes. It is believed that as many as 90% of people with insomnia also have another health condition like one of these. This likely goes back to the reparative nature of sleep, where the systems like your muscles and circulatory system attempt to repair themselves while you sleep.

Sleep issues can also cause weight gain due to a complex interaction between hunger, craving of high calorie food and metabolism. Obesity is a chronic condition in many first world countries, particularly in the United States. Even more problematic is the effect of being overweight on our previously listed chronic diseases. Diabetes, heart disease and all the others are made a lot worse.

Another chronic condition is that of depression. Sleep debt can increase symptoms of depression. It is hard to say if the sleep problems cause depression, or depression causes sleep problems. Depression often has sleep issues as one of its symptoms, and insomnia may actually be a contributor or early sign of depression. This is a chicken and egg kind of situation.

To not put too fine a point on it, sleep problems increase the likelihood of death. Those who don’t sleep well are more likely to die earlier and from preventable conditions.

Lesson Summary

Sleep is a natural, multistage suspension of consciousness during which time the body goes through restorative or maturational changes. By missing out on sleep, it reduces our ability to pay attention, decreases sex drive and increases cortisol levels. Sleep debt also increases the likelihood and severity of a chronic disease , which is a condition that develops more slowly and typically worsens over time. In addition, weight gain, depression and early death are all strongly linked to sleep problems.