We can all appreciate the difference between a good night’s sleep and one that is fitful or too short. You awaken feeling refreshed instead of irritable, energized rather than fatigued.
But persistent sleep loss can lead to health problems far more serious than that.
Types of sleep issues
First, let’s consider how we at the UC Irvine Health Neuropsychiatric Center define the most common conditions:
- Sleep deprivation is one of the most common causes of sleepiness and occurs when you don’t schedule enough sleep time for yourself at night.
- Chronic insomnia refers to the persistent inability to sleep or even nap very well at any time. It can have a variety of causes, such as stress, anxiety, depression, medical disorders or environmental factors.
- Fatigue is more of a general sense of feeling tired or having low energy, often in relation to insomnia.
More specific sleep disorders include sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome and narcolepsy.
How much sleep is enough?
If you don’t get enough sleep on a regular basis, you face greater health risks.
How much sleep is enough? Most adults require between seven and eight hours of sleep per night, whereas children and adolescents require even more.
Think of sleep as housekeeping for the brain. Data now suggests that sleep is critical for learning and memory. Unhealthy or abnormal proteins, such as amyloids, get cleared out of your brain during your sleep hours. Sleep is critical for brain function and restoration.
One obvious effect: Short-term sleep deprivation impacts your ability to stay awake and alert, which leads to accidents and injuries. In fact, drowsiness is estimated by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to contribute to 100,000 auto accidents and more than 1,500 crash-related deaths per year.
Health risks of poor sleep
Studies have linked chronic sleep problems to higher risks for serious health conditions such as:
- Heart disease: Inadequate sleep can cause elevated blood pressure, a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease.
- Immune function: Substances produced by the immune system to fight infection also contribute to fatigue, so those who sleep longer have been shown to recover more quickly.
- Obesity: People who sleep fewer than six hours per night are much more likely to have a high body mass index (BMI). Why? Researchers believe that insufficient sleeps upsets the hormonal balance that helps to control appetite and metabolism.
- Diabetes: Type 2 diabetes is more common in sleep-deprived individuals. This is thought to be due to a slower processing of glucose than occurs in those with normal sleep.
- Depression: Chronic sleep issues have been correlated with depression, anxiety and mental distress.
Studies have also shown that people who average between seven and eight hours of sleep per night have lower mortality rates than people who get considerably less – or considerably more – hours of sleep per night.
Medical researchers are still trying to figure out exactly how all this works, but we do know that sleep disorders are a major health risk.
What you can do about it
If you want to improve your sleep, start by reviewing healthy sleep behaviors. If practicing those behaviors does not resolve your sleep issues, see your primary care provider.
Sleep disorders are generally treatable. Most underlying causes of sleep loss – stress, anxiety, depression, medical disorders – can be successfully addressed by your regular physician.