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What Are the Effects of Poor Sleep?

Learn about the common effects of poor sleep and how you can improve the quality of your sleep.

Everyone wants to get a good night’s sleep, but let’s be honest—sometimes, life can get in the way. After all, busy lifestyles and family responsibilities don’t always leave a lot of time for rest and rejuvenation. However, sleep isn’t a nice-to-have act of self-indulgence. It’s actually a critical function and an integral part of a healthy, balanced lifestyle. Not getting enough sleep carries a host of short- and long-term consequences.

Learn about the effects of sleep deprivation to better understand the vital role that sleep plays in overall health and wellness. Plus, get top tips to improve the quality of your sleep and start each day feeling refreshed.

Why Sleep Is Important for Health

The average human spends almost one third of their life asleep.[1] But what exactly does the body do during this time? Although sleep research is a relatively young field, scientists have been able to observe and establish some critical processes that the body undergoes during sleep.

During sleep, the human body devotes significant energy to metabolizing and balancing several hormones such as growth hormone, melatonin, cortisol, leptin, and ghrelin.[2] Hormones such as melatonin and cortisol help manage our levels of sleepiness and stress, whereas leptin and ghrelin govern our satiety and hunger. When we don’t get enough sleep, the human body isn’t able to balance the levels of these hormones. As a result, poor sleep is linked to higher levels of stress, decreased satiety, and shorter attention span.[3]

While hormone regulation is one significant part of why sleep is important, the implications of poor sleep are numerous and wide-reaching. Scientists looked at the results of numerous sleep studies in a meta-analysis and found that poor sleep quality is causally related with negative mental health outcomes such as depression.[4] Put simply, the quality of our sleep is directly connected to how we feel—both physically and emotionally.

3 Common Symptoms of Sleep Deprivation

If you suspect that you might not be getting enough sleep, start by understanding some of the most common symptoms of sleep deprivation.

  1. Excessive sleepiness. It might be sound obvious, but the most common sign of sleep deprivation is excessive daytime sleepiness.[5] Due to the rigorous demands of daily life, many people are used to pushing through sleepiness by relying on crutches such as coffee or other stimulants. While these can help manage sleepiness for short periods of time, they risk masking the symptoms of excessive sleepiness. If you find yourself struggling to stay awake during common activities such as driving, school, or work, you should question if you are getting sufficient high-quality sleep.
  2. Change in mood or stress levels. Poor quality sleep can alter the balance of hormones in your body. During sleep, our brains lower the level of certain stress hormones like cortisol before releasing them again in the morning as we wake up. Poor quality sleep, or chronic sleep deprivation, can throw the levels of these hormones out of balance, altering mood and emotional wellbeing.[6] If you observe that your mood is more unstable than it usually is, or that you’re more stressed than usual, poor sleep can be a common culprit.
  3. Forgetfulness or trouble with concentration. When we sleep, our brains sort through our experiences and commit them to short- or long-term memory. As an example, one of the best things a student can do after studying is to get a full night of sleep. Research shows that cramming during an all-nighter is worse for memory than studying and then sleeping.[7] But you don’t have to be a student to appreciate the negative impact of feeling forgetful or struggling to focus on everyday tasks. Poor sleep impacts the brain’s ability carry out the processes crucial for memory, attention, and alertness.

How To Improve Your Sleep

If you struggle with poor sleep quality, don’t worry—there are several simple things you can try to improve the quality of your sleep. However, if you suspect that you’re suffering from chronic sleep deprivation, you should always consult with a doctor. You might have a sleep disorder that is preventing you from experiencing deep sleep.

  1. Improve your sleep hygiene. Sleep hygiene refers to the habits, behaviors, and environmental factors that influence the quality of your sleep. These days it’s hard to disconnect from our phones, TVs, or tablets, but research shows that these devices that emit blue light have the potential to interrupt our circadian rhythms and decrease the quality of our sleep.[8]
  2. Find a sleep schedule that works. One of the most reliable ways to improve the quality of your sleep is to work on establishing a consistent and realistic sleep schedule. Whether you’re a night-owl or early-riser, it’s important to be consistent with the time you go to bed and the time you wake up. Having an irregular bedtime is associated with worse sleep quality and increased interruptions during sleep.[9]
  3. Get regular exercise. Most people know that exercising regularly has a myriad of health benefits—but did you know it can help with your sleep quality too? Research has shown that exercise can help improve the quality and duration of sleep.[10] Whether you enjoy a long walk in the afternoon or weightlifting, positive effects on sleep have been observed with many different forms of exercise—so find what you enjoy and integrate it into your routine.
  4. Create your ideal sleep environment. Make sure that your room is calm, dark, and quiet. If you live somewhere that has lots of ambient noise, you can try a white noise machine or earplugs to help balance out distracting sounds that interrupt your sleep. Try meditating if you have difficult with relaxing mentally. Early research indicates that it can help improve sleep quality.[11]

If you’re not getting enough sleep, don’t worry. Understanding the effects of poor sleep—and how to improve the quality of your sleep—is the first step towards a restful, beneficial sleep routine that leaves you energized, refreshed, and ready to make each day count. Developing a healthy sleep cycle with good sleep hygiene and consistent sleep and wake times doesn’t have to be difficult. Many people find that after just a few days, they notice the physical and mental benefits of getting good sleep—not to mention the peace of mind that comes from prioritizing your health. And that’s more than enough motivation to keep up the great habits.