What is insomnia?
Rolling in bed the night before an important life event or after a long trip is normal, but if you’ve seemingly tried everything but still can’t get the 7-9 hours of sleep adults required, there’s nothing normal about it. Insomnia can refer to either difficulty falling asleep (called onset insomnia) or trouble staying asleep (known as maintenance insomnia).
Sleep deprivation is among the most common health issues in the world; around 33% of the world’s population suffers from insomnia. Sleep deprivation can either be categorized as acute (when the problem lasts for just a few days or weeks) or chronic (when it lasts for over a month). Due to its relation to stress, insomnia can go away on its own after the stressor no longer affects your life. However, it can also persist for months and require treatment.
What causes sleep deprivation?
It’s not always possible to tell what causes sleep deprivations. For this reason, doctors distinguish between two types of insomnia: primary and secondary insomnia. Primary insomnia has no specific cause, whereas secondary insomnia can be boiled down to an underlying cause, such as:
- Irregular sleep schedule
- Bad sleep habits, e.g. eating or drinking coffee late in the evening
- Health issues and medications that treat them (e.g. heart medications and antidepressants)
- Chronic pain
- Sleep disorders, such as obstructive sleep apnea.
One’s risk of insomnia also grows with age. Comorbid insomnia, or sleep deprivation caused by another health condition, is especially common in seniors. In many cases, several causes can overlap as well, worsening insomnia symptoms and causing a lot of harm in your life.
How Sleep Deprivation Affects Your Wellbeing and Appearance
1. Insomnia can affect your physical health
Sleep is the time when your body rests and renews itself. Your body temperature drops, the bodily functions slow down, and your brain processes all the information you’ve gathered throughout the day. Depriving your body of this resting state can have many repercussions on your physical health.
Researchers have ample data suggesting that sleep deprivation harms the cardiovascular system. Insomniacs have higher blood pressure and a higher risk of stroke, heart failure, and heart disease.
For your immune system, every hour of sleep matters a lot. This is because the immune system works to renew immune cells like T-cells at night. Therefore, not getting enough shuteye makes you more susceptible to germs and increases the level of inflammation in the body. According to research, getting below the recommended 7 hours of sleep nearly triples one’s risk of getting the flu.
Lastly, insomnia increases one’s sensitivity to pain, raises the recurrence of asthma attacks in patients with asthma and seizures in epilepsy patients, and is recognized as a new risk factor for diabetes.
2. Insomnia makes you more forgetful and less attentive
Make sure to get enough sleep to keep your memory sharp. As we’ve mentioned earlier, sleep is the time when the brain consolidates all the information collected throughout the day and forms long-term memories. Deep sleep is especially important, as this is the stage in the sleep cycle when new neural connections are made.
More specifically, a 2009 study isolated specific brain events known as “sharp wave ripples” during which memories are made and transferred into the long-term memory areas of the brain. These ripples occur mainly during deep sleep. To get the recommended 1 to 2 hours of deep sleep, you’d need to sleep at least 7-8 hours every night.
If you also notice that you’re not as attentive, alert, and concentrated after a night of too little sleep, you’re not imagining it. All of these so-called executive functions do slow down when you’re sleep-deprived as well.
3. Insomniacs have a higher risk of depression and other mental health issues
Knowing that stress is an underlying cause of both insomnia and depression, it’s not surprising that these two health conditions often appear together. There’s a strong link between insomnia and depression. A combination of these two conditions can have a snowball effect, meaning that people who get depression tend to struggle with sleep, which worsens their depression symptoms, and so on...
According to a 2007 study that involved 10,000 participants, insomniacs are 5 times more likely to suffer from depression than those who get enough sleep. Research also points out that sleep deprivation can increase one’s risk or worsen the symptoms of anxiety disorders, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and bipolar disorder. But it’s not all bad news because managing your sleep schedule tends to improve the symptoms of these mental health issues as well.
4. Sleep deprivation leads to premature skin aging
Paleness and dark under-eyes are hallmarks of insomnia. When we’re young, those dark and puffy eyes go away after a mere day of good sleep or just a midday nap. Over time, the skin’s ability to bounce back after a sleepless night decreases, and just a few missed hours of sleep pile up and have long-term repercussions in the form of fine lines, dark circles, and sallowness.
This is because the brain releases important hormones that promote skin repair at night. And when you don’t get enough sleep, the opposite happens: the brain releases the stress hormone cortisol, and cortisol breaks down collagen, the compound that gives our skin bounce and elasticity.
5. Insomnia reduces one’s sex drive
It’s logical that being groggy and low-energy kills the mood for love-making, but it’s still somewhat surprising that sleep scientists found a statistically significant decrease in libido after just a few hours of missed sleep. This effect is observed in both men and women, but it’s especially clear in men suffering from sleep apnea. A study from 2002 found that nearly half of men with severe sleep apnea have low testosterone levels.
6. Sleeplessness makes you gain weight
Did you know that almost a third of people who get 6 or fewer hours of sleep are clinically obese? Insomnia seems to stimulate one’s appetite, especially for high-fat and carb-rich foods. This may be, in part, due to a disruption in the two peptides that regulate appetite: ghrelin and leptin. The former makes you hungry, and the latter signals to your body that you’re full. Less sleep is known to decrease leptin levels and raise the levels of ghrelin.
7. Insmoniacs have a higher risk of accidents
The lesson is - do things very carefully when you’re jetlagged or not well-rested. This is especially true when driving, as drowsiness can impair your judgment and slow down your reaction time considerably.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 100,000 car accidents occur because the driver was sleepy. Mind you that any other activity that requires a lot of coordination, be it working with sharp tools or heavy objects, comes with similar risks.
How can you manage insomnia?
If you’re experiencing insomnia for a few days, chances are that it will go away on its own, especially if you practice beneficial sleep habits. In fact, good sleep hygiene is something we should all practice to prevent insomnia. Read all about such lifestyle habits here - 14 Guides and Tricks For a Better Sleep Routine. However, if you’re having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep all the time, consider talking it over with your doctor, as they will be able to help you find the underlying cause and address them to improve your sleep schedule for good!
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