5 Health Risks of Sleep Deprivation

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July 19, 2013


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Missing your beauty rest? Sleepless nights leave more than dark eye circles. Sleep deprivation is linked to a growing list of chronic conditions and illnesses, including heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, obesity and depression.

Recent national research also indicates that a sleep deficit increases your risk of stroke, asthma and cancer. That’s because sleep deprivation triggers unhealthy changes in hormonal, nervous and immune systems.

“Sleep deprivation causes havoc on your internal clock and puts you at risk for chronic illnesses,” said Timothy Grant, M.D., medical director of Baptist Sleep Center at Sunset.

Driving while tired is also a real threat, says Erick Palma, M.D.,  director of the Sleep Diagnostic Center at Mariners Hospital. What’s more, in some cases, a drowsy driver represents the same threat as a drunk driver based on the level of impairment, an Australian research team documented.  

How much sleep is enough? The National Sleep Foundation recommends a daily dose of seven to eight hours for adults (and even longer for young children and teens). Red flags of sleep disorders that can lead to sleep deprivation include less than seven hours of sleep on a regular basis, heavy snoring and other sleep disturbances.

Here are five major illnesses and conditions linked to sleep deprivation, according to Dr. Grant:

  1. Heart Disease:  Untreated sleep disorders, especially sleep apnea, increase the risk of heart disease, including irregular heartbeats or arrhythmias, Dr. Grant says.  Sleep apnea causes you to stop breathing five to 30 times a night or more, for at least 10 seconds each time. That scenario puts potentially life-threatening pressure on your heart and increases the risk of heart attack, atrial fibrillation, and even cardiac arrest. Heavy snoring, gasping for air, or choking at night, could be a sign of sleep apnea.  A sleep study can detect sleep apnea and help to outline an effective treatment strategy.
  2. Hypertension: Your blood pressure normally dips as the body rests and restores internal systems every night. Sleep deprivation and sleep apnea disturb that process and contribute to higher blood pressure. Sleep apnea causes you to stop breathing for brief periods during sleep, triggering an internal alarm that allows you to resume breathing. It all happens in seconds. But when that internal alarm rings repeatedly throughout the night, your body is robbed of quality sleep, and your blood pressure spikes during the night and day. Hypertension increases the risk of strokes and other diseases.
  3. Diabetes: There’s evidence that the hormonal changes caused by sleep deprivation may also increase the risk of type 2 diabetes, a condition in which the body is not able to convert sugar from food into energy, thereby creating dangerously high blood sugar levels. In June, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine issued an alert about a link between sleep disorders and type 2 diabetes.
  4. Obesity: About 65 percent of Americans are obese, a condition that increases the risk of other major illnesses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In addition to lifestyle and genetic factors, sleep problems are also suspect. Sleep deprivation disrupts hormones that control metabolism, appetite and blood sugar, which can lead to significant weight gain. Hunger and sleep deprivation share symptoms, and the similarities can confuse the body, according to research from the University of Chicago.  So, when you are sleepy, you could be tempted to overeat while trying to satisfy your body’s real hunger for sleep.
  5. Clinical Depression: Sleep disorders are linked to clinical depression (persistent sadness, anxiety and lethargy), which affects at least 20 million people, according to the Sleep Foundation. Sleep deprivation disrupts hormones that regulate moods, energy levels and mental clarity. “The relationship between sleep and depressive illness is complex:  depression may cause sleep problems and sleep problems may cause or contribute to depressive disorders,” a Sleep Foundation report found. Dr. Grant says mental health treatment strategies should include a review of a patient’s sleep history, with a sleep study if indicated, to determine if a sleep disorder is an underlying or significant factor. Ongoing depression increases a patient’s risk for a variety of physical health problems, including heart disease.

Dr. Grant recommends that people who don’t feel rested after a night of sleep should speak to their doctors.  Most sleep disorders can be diagnosed with a sleep study in a sleep diagnostic center like those at Baptist, South Miami, Homestead and Mariners Hospitals, as well as at freestanding centers like Baptist Sleep Centers at Galloway, Sunset, Miami Lakes and Pembroke Pines.

Dr. Grant says sleep is more than a beauty plan or a luxury—it’s a necessity.  Of course, Benjamin Franklin knew that more than 250 hundred years ago, when he wrote:  “Early to bed and early to rise makes a [person] healthy, wealthy and wise.”

Sleep well!

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