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In today’s fast-paced 24/7 world that never unplugs, there are so many responsibilities, tasks and online distractions that tend to creep up on the time previously spent on exercise, cooking healthy meals and sleeping. Although sleep is essential to our well-being, we often steal an hour or two of sleep time to meet all the demands of the professional and family life, to catch up on the news, scroll through Facebook or watch that favorite show. Statistics confirm that the time devoted to sleep has been declining gradually over the past 100 years. While at the beginning of the 20th century, people slept 9 hours per night on average, today we spend only 6 hours sleeping.

Just One or Two Sleepless Nights 
Short-Term Sleep Deprivation

An all-night party, studying until dawn before an important exam, staying up all night to finish that riveting book or to take care of a colicky baby – we all have done it at some point in time and seemingly it was not a big deal. But what really happens to our body, when we miss one night of sleep?

Cognitive Impairment - To compensate for the lack of sleep, your brain releases more dopamine, the “feel-good hormone”, so at first you do not feel tired. On the contrary, you might even feel energized, motivated and even frisky, as your sex drive is also likely to increase. However, the dopamine effect is short lived and soon you begin feeling tired and sleepy. Moreover, your planning and decision-making skills significantly deteriorate and your behavior becomes more impulsive. Driving, after a sleepless night, is definitely not a good idea, because your reaction time is much slower. In fact, it can even be compared to the state of impairment that a person with a blood alcohol level of 0.08 (i.e. legally drunk) would present. After three days without sleep, you might start to experience minor hallucinations and memory lapses. At this point, performing some tasks, like driving a car, carries very serious health and safety risks for you and other people. According to the American Sleep Association, drowsy driving is responsible for 1,550 fatalities and 40,000 nonfatal injuries annually, in the United States alone.

Overeating - Going without sleep for more than 24 hours increases and multiplies adverse effects. Your metabolism gradually slows down to the point, where your body is no longer able to break down any glucose. Simultaneously, your appetite increases, you crave snacks and, as the result, you tend to overeat.

Weakened Immune System - Your immune system temporarily shuts down, so you are more prone to illnesses and infections.
Wrinkles. When you do not get your beauty sleep, your body produces more cortisol than usual. Cortisol, “the stress hormone” inhibits collagen formation, which impacts the vitality of skin cells and makes any wrinkles or fine lines more visible.

Decreased Sex Drive - When you are tired, your sex drive decreases significantly or becomes nonexistent due to a decrease in the production of testosterone, the hormone responsible for sex drive in men and women. Research conducted in a group of 171 women, suffering from sleep deficiency, indicated that an additional hour of sleep may increase sexual activity by 14%. The results were published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine.

Sleepless in Seattle
Long-term Sleep Deprivation

The effects of one or two sleepless nights are definitely worrying, but stealing an hour or two of sleep, a few times a week, does not sound so bad. Or does it? In reality, the long-time cumulative sleep deprivation carries very serious health risks that affect the whole body. Sleep is increasingly recognized as important to public health, with sleep insufficiency linked to motor vehicle crashes, industrial disasters, and medical and other occupational errors. The problem is becoming very worrying when we realize how many people are affected by it. In the United States alone, an estimated 50-70 million US adults suffer from a sleep disorder.

Impaired Nervous System - The nervous system is the first part of the body affected by the lack of sleep. Sleep deprivation seriously impairs cognitive abilities, so two or three extra hours spent studying or working at night, will not be very productive. Additionally, you may suffer from mood swings, irritability and an overall deterioration of emotional health. After a prolonged sleep deficiency, you might start experiencing episodes of micro-sleep, i.e. brief, unintended episodes of loss of attention, including falling asleep. According to the American Sleep Association, over 37% of people in the United States reported unintentionally falling asleep during the day at least once, in the month preceding the study and close to 5% reported nodding off or falling asleep while driving.

Obesity - Sleeping is vital to maintaining a healthy weight. Lack of sleep is an obesity risk factor. When you are not getting enough sleep, your metabolism slows down, your body produces more insulin than is required to regulate the metabolism. As the result, it becomes much harder to control your appetite.

Diabetes - The weight gain and overproduction of insulin, resulting from the lack of sleep, might in turn lead to type 2 diabetes. By avoiding sleep, you are increasing the risk of developing the illness by up to 2.5 times.

Weakened Immune System - If you seem to catch colds every other week or it takes you a long time to recover from an illnesses and your sleeping habits fall on the short side, it is time to connect the dots. Most likely, your immune system is telling you that it needs more rest. When you are asleep, your body produces white cells that in turn produce antibodies – the body’s natural defense mechanism against infections. By avoiding rest, you essentially rob your immune system of the capability to do its job, i.e. to protect you from illness.

Heart Disease - Obesity also increases the risk of getting heart disease by up to 45%. Additionally, sleep deprivation causes heart palpitations and increases blood pressure, which may result in a stroke.

Psychologists form SWPS University have partnered with Nightly, a team of scientists, artists and entrepreneurs on a mission to help people attain high-quality, restful and efficient sleep. Together they will assess long term effects of the Nightly app on sleep quality, mood, and level of stress. Nightly app is one of the world’s first mobile solutions for sleep stimulation.

Currently the team is looking for candidates willing to participate in the Nightly app assessment study, which provides an opportunity to test the Nightly solution.
More information about the project »

A Vicious Circle

Lack of sleep causes a variety of health problems, but these conditions are also likely to affect your good night sleep. For example, depression (which can be caused by sleep deprivation) might lead to insomnia, a sleep disorder involving trouble sleeping and falling asleep. As mentioned before, sleep deficiency also stimulates production of cortisol. Cortisol is called “the stress hormone” and stress keeps us up at night. Eventually, you can find yourself in a vicious circle initially caused by the chronic lack of sleep and later fueled by the health conditions, which resulted from sleep deprivation.

Do not try this at home!

The longest time on record for a person to stay awake is 264 consecutive hours. The record belongs to Randy Gardner, who at the age of 17, took part in a sleep experiment. He managed to go without sleep for 11 days and 24 minutes. Despite the prolonged lack of sleep, researchers did not observe any long term effects affecting Randy. After he had caught up on his sleep (he slept for more than 10 hours for the next two nights), a full recovery was confirmed. Although this record might sound encouraging, it must be noted that it was achieved in a controlled environment, during an experiment.

So can the lack of sleep actually kill you? The answer is not so straightforward. While there is no proof that a person can die as a direct result of sleep deprivation, there is enough evidence to make us pay attention. For example, rats that were kept awake for prolonged periods of time did not live longer than two weeks. Other multiple studies indicate that the long-term effects of sleeplessness lead to serious health problems, which increase the chance of premature death by 12%. Furthermore, the quality of life of a sleep deprived individual suffers and may result not only in constant fatigue, but also in mood swings, depression and deterioration of personal relationships.

The price we pay for staying awake too long is very high and it might not be worth it.