Insomnia & You: The Side Effects Of Chronic Sleep Deprivation

by Avantika Kukreti

We always worry that a lack of sleep could make us gain weight and give us wrinkles, but the truth is it does much more than that. Sleep deprivation can affect your body in more ways that you can imagine, drastically altering your hormonal and blood sugar levels and leave you with a life-changing health condition.

CDC statistics show that an estimated 50-70 million US adults have a sleep or wakefulness disorder and almost half of them have another health condition[1]. If studies are to be believed your insomnia can not only make you depressed, it can also cause a spike in your blood sugar levels and result in diabetes.

The Insomnia Curse
“Insomnia can cause increased inflammation in the body by triggering the release of proteins called cytokines. It also increases levels of stress hormones such as cortisol, adrenaline, and noradrenaline. Taken together, it results in an increased incidence of hypertension, diabetes, heart disease, and stroke. Additionally, insufficient sleep causes obesity by increasing the release of  an appetite-stimulating hormone gherlin,” says Dr Robert S Rosenberg, Board-certified Sleep Medicine Specialist and author of Sleep Soundly Every Night, Feel Fantastic Every Day.

The National Institutes of Health estimates that roughly 30 percent of Americans complain of sleep disruption. In a 2005 National Sleep Foundation Poll, 50 percent reported at least one symptom of insomnia (difficulty falling asleep, waking up a lot during the night, waking up too early and not being able to get back to sleep, or waking up feeling non-refreshed) at least a few nights per week within the past year. [2]

Here are four health conditions that stem from insomnia.

1. Diabetes
Researchers say that sleep deprivation could play a major role in regulating a person’s blood sugar levels.

“Research data says that having insomnia makes it much more likely to develop chronic medical disorders such as diabetes, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease [3]. The presence of insomnia not only increases your risk of contracting them, it also affects your overall life expectancy and exacerbates any current comorbid condition you may have,” says Dr Heith Durrence, Medical Science Director at Pernix Therapeutics.

A study published in the journal Diabetes Care points out that people with diabetes who don’t sleep well have higher insulin resistance and find it difficult to manage their diabetes [4].  Diabetics are generally known to have worse sleep patterns than non-diabetics, and poor sleep has even been blamed as a risk factor for developing the disease.

2. Depression
“Insomnia and depression are intricately related. A person with insomnia is four to 40 times more likely to develop a major depressive disorder, with depression prevalence rates ranging from 70-80 percent in insomnia patients [5]. Further, when you examine relapse rates for depression (the patient was symptom-free but then has another episode of depression), the presence of insomnia is the biggest risk factor. This indicates that even when the depression subsides if the insomnia is not treated, the person is much more likely to experience a depression relapse,” says Dr Durrence.

Insomnia and depression feed on each other. Sleep loss often aggravates the symptoms of depression, and depression can make it more difficult to fall asleep. On the positive side, treating sleep problems can help depression and its symptoms, and vice versa.

“People with depression frequently relate problems with staying asleep and early morning awakenings. What insomnia and depression frequently have in common is high evening cortisol levels, especially around bedtime. This is when our cortisol levels should be at their lowest. Depression also results in abnormal sleep architecture on EEGs. We often see a premature appearance of REM sleep along with more light stages of sleep and less deep sleep,” adds Dr Rosenberg.

3. Heart Problems
Insomnia also affects your circadian rhythm and can increase your risk of heart attack, heart failure, and stroke. “Several studies conducted at Penn State University point out that insomniacs who sleep for less than six hours a night have a much higher incidence of heart disease and stroke,” says Dr Rosenberg.

A study published in the American Heart Association Journal Circulation (2011) pointed out that people who had trouble falling asleep increased their risk of heart attack by 45 percent. What’s disturbing is the fact that cardiologists often fail to consider the sleep history of their patients. Doctors now feel that fixing the sleep problems of patients could now be a way to improve their heart health. [6]

4. Hypertension & Obesity
A 2013 study shows that sleep deprivation and persistent insomnia are associated with increased blood pressure and an increased risk of hypertension. The study says that prolonged sleep loss or alterations of sleep quality might act as a neurobiological and physiologic stressor that impair brain functions, compromising stress resilience and somatic health. [7]

“A bad night of sleep interferes with the production of two critical metabolic hormones—leptin and ghrelin. Ghrelin is known as the hunger hormone and is secreted when the stomach is empty and stops when it is full. Leptin helps regulate eating by inhibiting hunger. Research shows that when a person does not get an adequate amount of sleep, ghrelin is secreted for a longer time, making a person think that he’s hungry even if he’s not. Leptin levels, on the other hand, are suppressed, and a person does not receive the signal that he is full. In chronic cases this leads to metabolic damage that might cause significant weight gain,” says Dr Durrence.

Tips To Sleep Well
Sleep guidelines from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute suggest that school-age children need at least 10 hours of sleep daily, teens need 9-10 hours and adults about 7-8 hours [8].

Dr Robert Oexman, Sleep Expert and Director of the Sleep to Live Institute in Mebane, NC, says, “Poor sleep can also increase body pain, besides causing obesity, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and trigger attention problems/accidents.” He gives the following to tips to help you sleep better every night.

  1. It is optimal to exercise three to four hours prior to bed for a sound sleep.
  2. Use an eye mask to eliminate all light and earplugs or a white noise machine to mask the noise. Do not sleep with the TV or radio on.
  3. Keep the room at 68 degrees or below. We need a decrease in core body temperature to fall asleep and maintain sleep.
  4. Try a sleep snack, which promotes the production of melatonin such as a hand full of cherries.
  5. Take a warm bath or shower to reduce your core body temperature by increasing blood flow to the skin.
  6. Avoid alcohol. Though it will make you fall asleep quickly, it will hamper your sleep quality.
  7. Use caffeine moderately in the morning and eliminate it in the afternoons and evenings. Even sodas, teas, and chocolates have caffeine.
  8. Develop and stick to a bedtime routine. Do something relaxing 30 minutes before bedtime, such as taking a hot bath or reading a book in low-light to help you fall asleep faster.

“We need to make sleep a priority.  That means whatever your bedtime is, your wake-up time needs to be at least eght hours later,” he sums up.

For more interesting stories, visit our Health page. Read more about Diseases & Conditions here.

3. Taylor, Mallory Lichstein, Durrence et al. Comorbidity of Chronic Insomnia With Medical Problems. SLEEP 2007;30(2):213-218.
5. Taylor, Lichstein and Durrence. Insomnia as a Health Risk Factor. Behavioral Sleep Med, 2003;1(4), 227–247.

Related Articles

Join The Conversation