The neurocognitive effects of lacking sleep: How being tired all the time is literally killing you
06/13/2018 // Carol Anderson // Views

Getting enough sleep is crucial for overall health since our bodies recuperate during this time. Understandably though, many of us are involved in different activities – working, taking care of the family, exercising, hanging out with friends – that we always tend to sacrifice a good night’s sleep. However, this type of neglect is costing us our health and if we don’t address it soon, it may lead to irreversible damage.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at least a third of our adult population reported getting less than seven hours of sleep. This statistic is truly alarming as sleep deprivation can largely affect our overall well-being.

In an interview with Dr. Russell Foster, director of the University of Oxford’s Nuffield Laboratory of Ophthalmology and the Sleep and Circadian Neuroscience Institute, “sleep is an essential part of our biology.” He added that the lack of it may have a significant impact on three domains.

The first area is the short-term sleep loss wherein big changes in behavior become noticeable. For example, those who lack sleep tend to be more impulsive and cannot empathize well with others. They can also experience difficulty in laying down memory and solving problems. What’s worse is, they can have issues with their overall cognitive abilities, and even with their sense of humor.

As for those who have not been getting enough sleep in a long time, their stress levels tend to be really high. This can cause the suppression of the immune system which enables our body to effectively protect itself from developing diseases. Long-term sleep loss may lead to serious infections, higher risk of developing coronary heart disease, metabolic abnormalities, and cancer.


When we are sleep-deprived, we tend to eat more foods high on carbohydrates and sugar to give us the energy we need. This is due to the hunger hormone, ghrelin, being released in our bodies, and this predisposes us to obesity and weight gain.

The third domain involves our mental health. If a person is vulnerable to mental health problems, sleep deprivation can make the condition worse. Foster said, “The best indicator of a slide into a depressive episode, whether it’s a first episode or recurrent, is a change in the pattern of sleep beforehand.”

What sleep disruption does to our systems

It’s important to know how badly sleep deprivation affects our body to further appreciate its significance. In terms of our central nervous system, we can easily develop an impulsive behavior, depression, paranoia, and suicidal thoughts.

Lack of sleep causes our immune system to weaken and fail to combat bacteria and viruses. A nighttime breathing disorder called obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) can dull our respiratory system by making it vulnerable to common cold and flu.

Aside from weight gain, the digestive system is also affected by this problem in terms of insulin levels. Not getting enough sleep makes the body release more insulin which can increase the risk for Type 2 diabetes. As for the cardiovascular system, blood sugar, blood pressure and inflammation levels also become at risk. (Related: Lack of sleep said to be health time bomb, the “next sugar”.)

Lastly, the endocrine system which is responsible for our hormones may not function well since hormone production is dependent on our sleep.

Foster advised that we should turn off any devices at least thirty minutes before going to bed. “You should minimize light exposure and get yourself into a state which is conducive to sleep. You should relax yourself. You should make the bedroom a place of sleep. That’s what it should be for.”

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