Most people are familiar with the obvious consequences of sleep deprivation — the heavy eyelids, short attention spans, and excessive yawning after a poor night’s sleep.
According to research and medical professionals, there are more dangers to meager sleep than people realize. Skimping on sleep is linked to numerous diseases and conditions, including stroke, obesity, and Alzheimer’s disease.
“It’s like with diet, every cell in the body benefits from food in some way,” said Michael Grandner, director of the Sleep and Health Research Program at the University of Arizona College of Medicine – Tucson. “Sleep is similar in that way. The whole body sleeps.”
Just one night of sleep deprivation can lead to accumulation in the brain of the beta amyloid protein, a key component in risk for Alzheimer’s disease, according to a 2018 study.1 Researchers found signs of the protein in the hippocampus, which plays a large role in forming new memories and is one of the first areas affected by Alzheimer’s.2
There’s also evidence that lack of sleep contributes to excess body weight. One study found people who slept fewer than seven hours each night were more likely to have higher average body mass indexes (BMIs) and develop obesity than those who slept more. Sleep restriction was also associated with salt retention and inflammatory markers.3
“Sleep plays many roles and is involved in most regulatory systems in the body,” Grandner said. “This includes everything from how cells transport glucose to manage energy, to how the immune system recognizes tissue for repair.”
Sleep disorders have been recognized in recent years as health factors that can increase one’s risk for heart attack and stroke. A 2018 study found that sleep disorders, particularly sleep apnea, are prevalent in people who are at risk of stroke.4 Another recent study found people who slept fewer than six hours each night — compared with those who slept six to nine hours — were at a 20% higher risk of heart attack.5
One third of U.S. adults get less sleep than they should, which has also been linked with Type 2 diabetes and depression, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It can also cause injury and death through car accidents and workplace mistakes.6
“It is possible to suffer a sleep disorder without realizing it,” advised Grandner. “Many sleep disorders are left undiagnosed or untreated.”
Some common sleep disorders include:7
- Insomnia – the inability to fall asleep and stay asleep through the night
- Sleep Apnea – causes interruptions through breathing irregularities
- Restless Leg Syndrome – causes “creeping” sensations and aches in the lower legs
However, inability to sleep is not always a medical problem. “It could simply be a matter of poor sleep hygiene: bad habits that lead to later bedtimes and insufficient sleep,” said Marie-Pierre St-Onge, Director, Columbia University Irving Medical Center Sleep Center of Excellence.
“Drinking coffee late in the day can be a culprit,” she cautioned. Life stressors can carry over into nighttime, too.
“People working multiple jobs, struggling with work-life balance, sometimes struggle. We’re also seeing that children and adolescents aren’t getting enough sleep, which is why there’s been this push to delay school start times so they can get more sleep at night.”
But for those having trouble getting proper sleep, there are ways to make improvements.
“Maintaining good sleep hygiene and a stable schedule helps,” St-Onge said. She recommends not staring at a phone right before bedtime. “Looking at emails late at night from bed not only shines light in your eyes, but it can cause stress that makes falling asleep more difficult.”
Grandner stressed the importance of winding down before bedtime to get the body prepared for rest, comparing the practice to slowing down a car before taking an exit off a highway.
He also suggests avoiding food late at night. “And if sleep doesn’t come easily, it’s often better to get up and walk around for a bit rather than toss and turn. Breathing exercises may also help relax the body,” he said.
One approach is the 4-7-8 technique: empty the lungs, breathe in through the nose for four seconds, hold the breath for seven seconds, and exhale through the mouth for eight seconds. Rhythmic breathing is used in meditation and yoga practices to promote relaxation, which can lead to better sleep.8
“Busy professional people are very distracted during the day, and they hope their brain is like a light switch you can turn off whenever you want to,” Grandner said. “A lot of people need to think about giving themselves enough time to wind down. They should see their sleep as an investment in the next day’s productivity and potential.”
Things to Consider:
- Avoid electronics before bed — this simple step can help you sleep better.
- Concerned about having trouble sleeping? It can help to see a specialist.
- Unwinding and creating a bedtime routine can lead to a better night’s sleep.
This article was prepared by the American Heart Association (AHA). Transamerica is not affiliated with the AHA and does not control, guarantee, or endorse the information. This information does not constitute the practice of medical advice, diagnosis or treatment .
Transamerica Resources, Inc. is an Aegon company and is affiliated with various companies which include, but are not limited to, insurance companies and broker dealers. Transamerica Resources, Inc. does not offer insurance products or securities. The information provided is for educational purposes only and should not be construed as insurance, securities, tax, legal or financial advice or guidance. Please consult your personal independent advisors for answers to your specific questions.
1 “ β-Amyloid accumulation in the human brain after one night of sleep deprivation ,” National Center for Biotechnology Information, 2018
2 “ Shrinking Hippocampus and Alzheimer's Disease ,” Verywell Health, 2020
3 “ Sleep deprivation and obesity in adults: a brief narrative review ,” British Medical Journal, 2018
4 “ Sleep Disturbances as a Risk Factor for Stroke ,” National Center for Biotechnology Information, 2018
5 “ Sleep Duration and Myocardial Infarction ,” Science Direct, 2019
6 “ Sleep and Sleep Disorders ,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2018
7 “ Key Sleep Disorders ,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 20188 “ How to use 4-7-8 breathing for anxiety ,” MedicalNewsToday, 2019