Sleep deprivation doesn’t just lead to short-term effects like forgetfulness, irritability, or an inability to focus. Many important physiological processes happen when the body is at rest, and a consistent lack of sleep can increase your risk for common health issues like high blood pressure and diabetes. (The American Heart Association even recognizes healthy sleep as one of eight key measures for improving and maintaining cardiovascular health.)
Here’s more on the relationship between sleep and physical health and how to improve your sleep hygiene.
The sleep-health connection
Sleep deficiency, which refers to both sleep deprivation and sleep disorders that impact the quality of your rest, can interfere with many physiological processes that are critical to your health. Here’s how sleep intersects with common health issues.
High blood pressure
We often fill our waking hours with activities that are more demanding for the heart, and as a result, blood pressure tends to drop when we’re asleep. If you aren’t sleeping long enough, or if your sleep quality is compromised in another way, you aren’t experiencing this natural decrease in blood pressure every night. Over time, many sleepless nights can lead to a higher daily average blood pressure. If you experience consistent stress or have other risk factors for high blood pressure, you may be more likely to develop high blood pressure as a result of sleep deprivation.
Heart attack and stroke
While your heart slows down when you are in a state of deep sleep, your heart rate and blood pressure can increase if you wake up suddenly. In the long term, sleep disruptions can put greater stress on your heart and contribute to your overall heart attack risk.
Because sleep deprivation can drive high blood pressure and plaque accumulation in your arteries — two leading risk factors for stroke — there is also a correlation between a lack of sleep and your risk of having a stroke, a serious cardiac event in which blood flow to the brain is interrupted.
Coronary artery disease
Coronary artery disease, the most common type of heart disease in the US, occurs when cholesterol and other fatty materials build up in your arteries, making it harder for your heart to pump blood to the rest of your body.
There are several ways that sleep deprivation can contribute to plaque accumulation in the arteries and increase a person’s risk for heart disease. First, sleep deprivation-related hypertension strains the arteries. In addition, poor sleep can trigger chronic inflammation, which also leads to plaque build-up and hardens the arteries.
Type 2 diabetes
Type 2 diabetes, the more common of the two main types of diabetes, is characterized by insufficient insulin production or insulin resistance, resulting in elevated levels of a blood sugar called glucose. It develops gradually as the result of genetic, lifestyle, and environmental factors.
Research has identified a link between sleep and blood sugar levels. Even small amounts of sleep deprivation can make the body less effective at using insulin, and poor sleep is linked to prediabetes.
Prediabetes is a health condition defined primarily by blood sugar levels that are higher than normal but below the official range for a type 2 diabetes diagnosis. If left untreated, it can progress into type 2 diabetes and potentially lead to long-term health complications such as cardiovascular issues.
Sleep deprivation can also negatively affect blood sugar management for individuals already diagnosed with diabetes.
Obesity is a risk factor for many health issues, including type 2 diabetes. Poor sleep can affect a portion of the brain that controls your appetite, potentially resulting in unhealthy weight gain.
Immune system function
A lack of high-quality sleep can also interfere with the body’s production of cytokines — proteins that support a healthy immune response — weakening your natural defenses against disease and illness.
Common sleep problems
Two primary sleep problems can impact your health: sleep apnea and insomnia.
Sleep apnea is a disorder in which the airway is blocked during sleep, causing a person to stop breathing for short periods of time. It affects your oxygen levels while sleeping and has been linked to high blood pressure, heart attack, and stroke.
Insomnia occurs when you have trouble falling or staying asleep. Many people have experienced insomnia at some point in their lives, and the CDC estimates that 1 in 10 US adults may experience chronic insomnia.
What to do for sleep problems
More than 1 in 3 US adults report getting less than the recommended seven hours of sleep per night. Fortunately, the following steps can improve your sleep hygiene.
Maintain a consistent sleep schedule, going to bed and waking up at the same time every day, including weekends.
Avoid use of electronic devices close to bedtime.
Get plenty of natural light and stay physically active during the day, but avoid exercising close to bedtime.
Avoid consuming food or beverages close to bedtime, particularly caffeine, alcohol, and high-sugar or high-fat foods.
Keep your bedroom dark and quiet and maintain a comfortable temperature.
Learn how to prevent stress-related sleep issues here.
If you think you may have a sleep disorder, consult with your doctor about a diagnosis and treatment options, in addition to taking the actions above.
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This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.