What happens when you don’t sleep?

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When was the last time you got a full eight hours of sleep? If you’re like most Americans, you probably had to think about it. In a 2013 Gallup poll, nearly two thirds of Americans reported getting less than eight hours of sleep most nights. In fact, a lack of sleep has become so pervasive that it’s being called a public health crisis.

But even though we always hear that we need to get the right amount of sleep, why is that important? Here’s what happens to your body when you don’t get enough sleep.

You May Fall Asleep and Not Know It

Even if you feel like you function well without enough sleep, your brain may think otherwise. It takes correct action through “microsleep” — split seconds where you unknowingly fall asleep and your brain simply stops processing things. Even if it’s just for a fraction of a second, there can be significant consequences whether you’re at home, at work, or driving. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, drowsy driving was responsible for 72,000 crashes and 800 deaths in 2013.

Your Response Time is Impaired

Even one night of less-than-perfect sleep can result in slowed response times — and if you’re chronically fatigued, it’s even worse. In one study, they found that with just one night of less-than-great sleep (about six hours), response time is already significantly slower than normal. In chronically sleep deprived individuals, response times on par with people with blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.10%. In addition to impaired driving, that can also mean problems at the office — a Harvard Medical School study found that 43 percent of workers with insomnia have admitted to making serious workplace error.

Your Quality of Life and Emotional Function Go Down

How do you feel after a poor night of sleep? Probably not great. So, it should come as no shock that, as the amount of sleep you get decreases, so does your enjoyment of your life. It makes sense — when you’re tired, you’re more likely to opt out of social activities. But on top of a lighter social calendar, a lack of sleep can contribute to anxiety and depression. You’re also less able to regulate your emotional responses. That means you may be more volatile, less able to deal with things that go wrong, and less likely to see things from a positive perspective. But there is good news — once you do catch up on your sleep, your mood will quickly return to normal.

Your Rhythm is — Literally — Off

When you get quality sleep, the neurotransmitters and hormones that regulate your circadian rhythm are operating normally, telling you to sleep at night and stay awake during the day. However, when your sleep cycle gets thrown off a bit, so do those hormones. After a few nights of unusual sleep patterns, your body may get turned around, telling you to sleep at the wrong time. It’s a vicious cycle — the more it happens, the more difficult it is to get back to normal patterns.

You’re Making Yourself Sick

The list of conditions sleep impacts is long — and, contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t take years for them to develop. Heart disease and diabetes are two of the most significant risks of poor sleep. One night of bad sleep can increase blood pressure for 24 hours, and regular hypertension can lead to coronary artery disease later down the road. The American Heart Association even recently added lack of sleep as a risk factor for coronary artery disease. Inadequate sleep also makes your body unable to metabolize glucose as effectively, leading to weight gain, increased appetite, and potentially diabetes.

The health impacts of poor sleep don’t stop there, though. If you aren’t sleeping well, you’re also putting yourself at risk for respiratory problems, cognitive impairments, decreased immune function, and more.

So What Can I Do About It?

There are small things you can do to counteract one bad night of sleep — coffee, exercise, getting out in the sunlight — but if you’re chronically sleep deprived, you need to start a conversation with your primary care provider (PCP). Sleep can sometimes be a challenging topic to discuss, so come prepared with notes about your sleep habits, including what you’re doing before bed, how long it takes you to fall asleep, how often you wake up at night, what time you wake up, and how your energy levels are. Data from apps or devices like Fitbits can also be useful in providing insights into your sleep habits. The more information you have for your PCP, the better — it helps them know the extent of your sleep problems so they can make the best possible treatment recommendations.

Ready to start a sleep conversation with your provider? Make an appointment today.

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The One Medical blog is published by One Medical, an innovative primary care practice with offices in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Phoenix, the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle, and Washington, DC.

Any general advice posted on our blog, website, or app is for informational purposes only and is not intended to replace or substitute for any medical or other advice. The One Medical Group entities and 1Life Healthcare, Inc. make no representations or warranties and expressly disclaim any and all liability concerning any treatment, action by, or effect on any person following the general information offered or provided within or through the blog, website, or app. If you have specific concerns or a situation arises in which you require medical advice, you should consult with an appropriately trained and qualified medical services provider.

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