If you’re one of the 70 million Americans who experience insomnia from time to time, you probably are familiar with at least a few of the side effects that come from sleep deprivation.
Puffy eyes, dark circles, dizziness, slow decision-making (or poor decision making), dry eyes, headaches, nausea. These are just a few of the issues you may have the day after just one sleepless night.
But what if you accumulate a series of sleepless nights? The sleep debt you create by under-sleeping on a regular basis gets bigger and bigger, to the point where you can’t ever fully repay your body the sleep it needs to run properly.
Chronic insomnia like this poses more serious health challenges beyond the short-term side effects of a single night spent tossing and turning. Researchers have found that chronic, ongoing, or intermittent insomnia may have an effect on multiple systems in the body, including the nervous system, immunity, the endocrine system (hormones), and cardiovascular health (the heart).
What Is Insomnia, and Do I Have It?
Insomnia is difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep. Your insomnia may be secondary, meaning it’s caused by some other health condition that needs addressing, such as arthritis, respiratory issues, or drug interactions. However, in many cases, insomnia is primary, meaning it’s a sleep disorder that needs to be treated in its own right.
Some signs of insomnia include:
- Trouble getting to sleep. Do you have an inability to get sleepy at bedtime, due to racing thoughts or just a simple feeling of alertness?
- Problems staying asleep. Are you waking up during the night and finding it difficult or impossible to go back to sleep?
- Waking up exhausted. Are you waking up feeling tired or unrested?
- Daytime sleepiness. Do you have constant tiredness, or do you take spontaneous naps when you really would rather be awake?
- Mood issues. Are you feeling irritable? Do you have a short fuse, or do you get more emotional than usual?
- Concentration problems, brain fog, and cognitive and memory impairment. Are you having trouble thinking clearly?
These are some of the classic signs of insomnia. Sometimes, stress or major life events make sleep difficult for a few weeks. Often, these bouts of insomnia will pass on their own without medical help.
However, if you can answer “yes” to one or more of these checklist questions on multiple nights for a period of time longer than a few weeks, you may have chronic insomnia.
How Much Sleep Do I Need to Stay Healthy?
If you’re an adult, the National Sleep Foundation recommends a minimum of 7 hours of sleep per night. Teenagers, adolescents, and young children need more (up to 14 hours).
Unfortunately, most American adults—and increasingly, a large number of our school children—are not meeting these requirements. A staggering one in three adults get less than the necessary amount of sleep on a regular basis.
Sleep is one of the primary keys to good health. Without it, we simply can’t function. The human body needs sufficient sleep to self-repair and to reset at the end of every day. While you’re sleeping, your body and brain:
- Consolidate memory and learning
- Repair damage to tissue, the heart, and blood vessels
- Release and regulate hormones and insulin
- Regulate immunity
Insomnia deprives the body of this opportunity to regularly replenish itself, which can be detrimental to your health both in the short term and the long term.
Health Consequences of Untreated Insomnia
Insomnia poses risks to your health. The following is a list of potential conditions and side effects that may result from not treating your insomnia.
Untreated insomnia can put you in a higher-risk category for heart disease. Under-sleeping can also contribute to the severity of existing conditions like:
- Heart disease
- High blood pressure
According to the National Sleep Foundation, an adult over 45 who sleeps less than six hours per night may have double the likelihood of stroke or heart attack, when compared to someone the same age who sleeps between six and eight hours.
Insomnia can lead to insufficient time spent in each of the phases of sleep. This, in turn, can disrupt how the brain stores experiences and learning in short-term memory. Some cognitive effects of insomnia include:
- Attention, concentration, and focus problems
- Difficulty reasoning and making decisions
- Learning difficulties
- Memory impairment
Lack of sleep slows your thinking and can affect your judgment and reaction times, which can create additional problems if your job depends on making fast decisions.
Mental health and mood problems
Sleep is an important part of regulating mood. Not enough sleep can trigger psychiatric illness and mood disorders or make existing conditions worse. Insomnia and sleep deprivation have been linked to:
- Irritability, anger, or aggression
- Impulsive behavior
- Low energy
- Lack of motivation
- Mood swings
Sleep-deprived individuals can often find themselves on-edge and may overreact to frustrations, lash out at others, or make reckless decisions.
Obesity, and obesity-related health problems
Sleep plays a role in your body’s balance of hunger hormones (ghrelin and leptin) and insulin. Insomniacs may find themselves overeating or choosing the wrong foods (or caffeinated drinks) to counteract daytime drowsiness. The result can be:
- Excessive weight gain
- Heart problems, high blood pressure, and diabetes
- Joint strain and injury
- Lower back pain
- Metabolic disorder
- Posture problems
Teens and kids are often affected by these issues, too. One study with teens indicated that the odds of become obese increased with each lost hour of sleep.
Waking up tired or being excessively sleepy throughout the day is a classic sign of insomnia (and of many other sleep disorders). You may have:
- Excessive daytime sleepiness
- Microsleeps—instances of tiny naps, just a few seconds long, over which you have little control
- Physical exhaustion and fatigue
This tiredness can become dangerous if it causes you to lose strength when you need it or fall asleep on the job or behind the wheel.
Sleep deprivation can lead to muscle tension and headaches. Often, pain disrupts and fragments sleep; then lack of sleep leads to more pain, creating a vicious cycle. If you have ongoing insomnia, you may notice:
- Increased pain sensitivity
- Delayed sleep onset
More studies need to be done on the link between sleep and pain. What researchers do know is that many chronic pain conditions contribute to insomnia. If you have such a condition, alleviating the pain itself may improve your sleep.
Social Consequences of Insomnia
The above side effects of insomnia are mental and physical responses to lack of sleep. However, there’s a human, social cost that goes hand-in-hand with these health problems. Being robbed of sleep takes a toll on relationships and your ability to function at your highest ability.
People with frequent or chronic insomnia may also suffer from:
- Academic struggles
- Alcohol and drug abuse (including prescription painkillers)
- Financial difficulties
- Relationship troubles
- Work or job performance problems
The increased stress from these burdens can exacerbate any existing health problems—and, frustratingly, make a good night's sleep even harder to come by.
Public Health Consequences of Insomnia
Insufficient sleep contributes to public health problems, too.
According to the National Sleep Foundation, “being awake for 18 hours straight makes you drive like you have a blood alcohol level of .05.” Untreated insomnia can therefore contribute to dangerous situations like:
- Automobile accidents
- Occupational accidents
The risks of untreated insomnia are great, but the key word is “untreated.”
Insomnia treatments do exist. Visiting a sleep specialist is the first step to uncovering the specific cause of your insomnia. Addressing that cause through medication, cognitive behavioral therapy, sleep hygiene, and other therapies may be able to help you to get more sleep—and improve your health.