Nobody chooses to become sleep deprived, but it happens to the best of us for numerous reasons. Regardless, statistics don’t care why you got less-than-optimal sleep. The reality is, most of us do.
One study surveyed 444,306 American adults and found more than one-third got less than seven hours of sleep nightly.(1) Overall, Americans get about two hours’ less sleep nightly compared to 1960, when the average person slept 8.5 hours a night; today, we get an about six hours and 40 minutes.(2) That’s a big drop in 50 years!
It isn’t like we consciously decided to sleep less over the last few generation years. Increased family and work demands, technology, and age-related disorders are among the many reasons we get less shuteye in 2017.(3)
Regardless, those shortcomings create massive practical, metabolic, and hormonal consequences. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), states with the highest level of obesity had higher sleep deprivation.(1)
Sleep deprivation makes you fat and sick. Researchers argue direct costs due to sickness absence could decrease up to 28 percent if we address sleep disturbances.(4)
As with everything, balance becomes key: Most of us need more sleep, but too much can become just as detrimental. One study found people who sleep over nine hours become more prone to things like sedentary behavior and depression.(5)
Most of us don’t fall into that category. We don’t get enough sleep, and the sleep we do get isn’t quality. Unfortunately, those repercussions can manifest after just one night’s bad sleep.
A Day in the Life after 1 Bad Night of Sleep
We’ve all been there. You get into a fight with your significant other, get a reprimanding 11 p.m. email from our boss, receive a disturbing phone call, or maybe just get caught up in a great film or book. Next thing you know, it’s after midnight, you’ve got to be up by 6 a.m., yet you’re wired and your favorite actress is on your favorite late show.
You’ve got an over-the-counter sleep aid in the bathroom cabinet, yet you know you’ll wake up feeling awful. Finally, about some miserable tossing, you drift into a lucid sleep. You know the type: You awake frequently in that semi-conscious state. It doesn’t feel like solid sleep.
While it feels like a hot minute that you actually sleep (if you can call it that), that darn alarm clock blares at 5:45 a.m.
You’ve got a full pot of coffee, and you’ll need it. The immediate aftermath isn’t pretty: You’re in an overall bad mood, upset with everything and everyone in sight.
This day will totally suck.
Bad Sleep Can Make You a Hangry, Unpleasant Mess
Bad sleep can compromise your optimistic outlook(6), make you a more negative person(7), make you more aggressive(8), and increase anxiety levels.(9) One evaluation of Australian sleep habits found sleep deprivation increased daytime fatigue, sleepiness, and irritability 20%-35%.(10)
You’ve got no time for breakfast, so you drive through your favorite coffee shop pick-up window. Even though the line is around the block and you’ll probably be a few minutes late to work, you’ve got to have your venti dark roast (along with a banana nut muffin), boss freak-out be damned.
Indeed, one study found people who sleep less than five hours are more likely to grab sugary, caffeinated beverages, further impeding sleep and instigating a vicious cycle.(11)
Java and muffin clandestinely in hand, you sneak into your cubicle so your boss doesn’t notice you’re 12 minutes later, but your overly perky receptionist makes a snappy remark as you walk in. You’re not sure whether that comment was sarcastic or simply her odd humor.
Studies show people sleep-deprived for one to two nights have trouble with social interactions, particularly regarding sarcasm. Believe it or not, researchers named this phenomenon “slowed perceptive-taking processes,” an inability to perceive irony in social situations.(12)
Terrible Sleep Ramps Up Stress
As the day goes on, no matter what hits you, you’re completely overwhelmed and stressed out.
No surprise there: Bad sleep ramps up stress, disrupting your HPA axis (hypothalamus, pituitary, and adrenal glands) that releases your stress hormone cortisol. What would normally be little things become big stressors, and those elevated cortisol levels stay elevated when they should simmer down (impeding your next night’s sleep).(13)
That elevated cortisol increases glucose, increasing your risk for cardiovascular disease (14) and Type 2 diabetes. One found people who sleep less than six hours nightly have a higher risk for Type 2 diabetes due to reduced glucose tolerance and insulin sensitivity.(15)
Want to Get Fat? Dial Down Your Sleep
Terrible sleep knocks your fat-storage, blood sugar-regulating hormone insulin all over the map, with disastrous consequences. One study found sleep deprivation impairs insulin signaling for fat cells.(16)
What is most interesting is that it doesn’t take long for this to occur. One study found a partial night’s sleep – we’re talking that post-midnight late show with a 5:45 a.m. alarm clock – increased insulin resistance in otherwise-healthy subjects.(17)
That’s only the tip of bad sleep’s health-sabotaging consequences. Poor sleep also ramps up chronic inflammation, paving the path for obesity and nearly every disease on the planet. One study with 10 male athletes showed increased levels of C-reactive protein (an inflammatory marker) in blood samples taken after a 24-hour period of sleep-deprivation.(18)
By mid-morning, you’re officially done with this wretched day. Done. Notably, when a co-worker bring sweets into the office, you crave them immediately — for good reason: Bad sleep scrambles ghrelin (your hunger hormone) and leptin (your satiety hormone), confusing your brain whether you should eat or step away from the sweets and carbs.(19) You’re not craving wild salmon and sautéed spinach either; studies show sleep deprivation increases high-carbohydrate foods about 32 percent.(2)
Altogether, you’re set for a serious metabolic crash. One study found poor sleep decreases glucose tolerance, increases evening cortisol levels, increases ghrelin, decreases leptin, overall scrambling your appetite and increasing obesity risk.(19)
For Less-than-Stellar Performance, Neglect Your Sleep
By noon, you’re likely to feel fat and bloated … Let’s say you now have to make a presentation. As you feel your colleagues judgingly gaze at you, you blank out several times. Not surprisingly, one study found less than seven hours of sleep crashed behavioral alertness and intellectual functioning.(20)
Here’s the weirdest thing that happened during your presentation: You couldn’t remember whether a comment you made to your significant other that morning really happened or if it was a dream.
This phenomenon, called false memory generation, occurs with inadequate sleep. Researchers speculate it happens because of your brain’s inability to reduce oxidative stress and heal without proper sleep. As your brain tries to repair synapses and moderate inflammation, the process becomes prolonged and faulty thoughts can occur.(21)
You’re angry for blanking out during the presentation. That’s when your pull it together moment occurs. You’re determined to get back on track, bypassing your coworkers’ Mexican order-in lunch for a smart salad topped with grilled chicken.
Even though you’re coasting by on about five hours’ sleep, you’ll step up afternoon productivity, hit the gym after work, eat a healthy dinner, spend a little intimate time with your significant other, and get a great night’s sleep.
The best-laid plans often go awry. Yours head south about 2:30 p.m., when you suddenly get cravings for something salty and your energy levels nosedive.
Throughout the day, by no surprise, you’re doing less-than-stellar work. One study found sleep deprivation adversely impacted cognitive capacities including altered response time, performance level, alertness, attention, and vigilance.(22)
Finally, 5 p.m. arrives, and you’re heading home from work. You narrowly avoid an accident as you drive away. Here’s an almost-unbelievable statistic: The CDC estimates one in 25 adults have fallen asleep at the wheel in the last 30 days — and sleep deprivation slows reaction time and affects your ability to make smart driving decisions.(23)
Sleep Deprivation Kills Your Workout Routine
Poor sleep can kill, but it can also kill your workout routine. At the end of the day, feeling out of shape and guilty from those morning carbs, research shows you are very likely to now be too tired to hit the gym. Sleep disturbances and sedentary behavior go hand in hand. One study found sleep restriction makes folks with Type 2 diabetes blow off exercise and, if they do exercise, it becomes less intense.(24)
Other studies confirm sleep restriction decreases physical activity (27), your cognitive performance, capacity for exercise, and increased risk for exercise-induced injuries during extreme and/or prolonged exercise or during team sports.(28)
Tonight, you’ll veg out on the couch. Studies show people with insomnia spend significantly more time shopping, watching television, and relaxing, whereas good sleepers spent significantly more time talking to people, working, and studying.
In other words, good sleepers think bigger-picture, whereas people with insomnia think more about their immediate physical environment and passive relaxation.(29)
Bad Sleep Crashes Your Sex Drive
You arrive home to find your significant other made you an amazing dinner because they know you had a rough day. After dinner, much as you want to be in the mood, just initiating sex with your partner feels like a herculean chore. No surprise: bad sleep messes with your sex hormones.
One study found reduced circulating testosterone in men after eight consecutive days of getting less than five hours of nightly sleep.(30) Bad sleep and reduced sleep quality also kill female sex drive. It isn’t just that you’re not in the mood; studies show signals that promote feel-good serotonin release during sex get blocked when you don’t sleep well.(31)
You’re wired, tired, frustrated, and determined tonight you’ll get better sleep. All that caffeine’s ramped up your brain, so you reach for a glass of cabernet to unwind. Studies show poor sleepers more often use alcohol as a crutch.(32)
Overall, a vicious cycle emerges as you get somewhat better sleep… Until about 3 a.m., that is, when you suddenly awake completely alert. Have you been there?
The $32 Billion Sleep Solution?
According to the CDC, almost nine million Americans use prescription drugs to sleep.(33) Others take over-the-counter (OTC) drugs that contain sleep-inducing ingredients like diphenhydramine. In 2012, researchers estimated Americans could spend a whopping $32.4 billion on prescription and OTC drugs. (34)
But put that into perspective: A 2007 study by the National Institutes of Health found sleep meds give you an average of 11 – yes, 11 – more minutes of sleep. Nothing to write home about.
Worse, a riveting article in The Atlantic notes emergency room visits due to sleeping pills has doubled over the past few years.
“The simplest explanation for the increase in sleeping pill-related hospitalization may be that the use of sleeping pills in general is also on the rise,” writes Cari Romm. “The number of prescriptions for nonbenzodiazepine sedative hypnotics, a group of drugs to which zolpidem belongs, grew 30 times over between 1994 and 2007—that’s five times faster than the growth of insomnia diagnoses over the same period of time, and 21 times faster than the growth of patient complaints of sleeplessness.”
While these drugs can help you fall and stay asleep, their drawbacks can outweigh benefits. Many people complain of a morning-after “hangover” or feeling foggy and subsequent draggy feeling throughout the morning.
That’s because pharmaceutical and OTC sleep aids can impede sleep quality. Several studies show rebound insomnia can occur when people withdraw from certain sleep drugs(35) like benzodiazepine treatment.(36)
OTC and prescription sleep meds can also prevent you from sleeping as deeply as you need to feel rested the next day. They can occasionally lead to sleepwalking and other abnormal sleep-related behaviors.(37)
One study with 788 healthy adults who suffered from insomnia (sleeping less than 6.5 hours per night and/or taking more than 30 minutes to fall asleep) for at least a month were given Lunesta (an FDA-approved prescription sleep drug) or a placebo nightly for six months.
The results were hardly impressive: The Lunesta folks fell asleep 15 minutes faster and slept 37 minutes longer.(38)
That’s because many sleep drugs for insomnia can suppress slow-wave sleep (also known as “deep” sleep or, more formally, as stage N3) and REM sleep. They can even increase your risk for morbidity and mortality.(39) Please don’t shoot the messenger — these warnings are on the box.
Natural Sleep Remedies
For individuals already taking prescription medications without much success, know that you are not alone! More and more North Americans are seeking more natural options, in search of better results and/or fewer side-effects. That said, always work with your doctor when modifying any medication habits — but know that there are some natural options out there that may be of benefit to you, regardless of the route you take with medication and with your doctor’s advice.
Not all of these options will work for everyone, and you’ll usually need to give them time to work with your body’s sleep rhythms. The good news is even if they don’t help your sleep (the probably will), many offer other benefits. Among these options include:
This helps regulate the body’s circadian rhythm, and as you age you’re probably making less.(40) One study found insomnia patients over 55 who used prolonged release (PR) melatonin improved their sleep quality and morning alertness without any side effects.(41)
2. Herbal blends
Over-the-counter sleep aids combine melatonin with sedative-type herbs like valerian root can boost sleep quality, decrease sleep latency, and reduce how often you wake up during the night.(42)
That same study found 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP), a precursor to melatonin and your feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin, could also improve sleep. Just 100 mg increased slow-wave sleep, important for memory and recovery from daily activities.(42) Beyond its role in the melatonin pathway, 5-HTP helps modulate levels of your stress hormone cortisol.(43)
Several studies show this non-essential amino acid could help sleep disorders and alleviate symptoms of daytime fatigue and improving performance in sleep-deprived healthy folks.(44)
This B-vitamin derivative comes in capsules, but its mildly sweet taste makes getting higher doses from a supplement powder easy. Among its sleep-remedying benefits, inositol can reduce anxiety, which commonly impedes sleep. One double-blind, controlled, crossover trial found inositol can treat panic orders as well as fluvoxamine without that drug’s side effects.(45)
This tried-and-true relaxing mineral can be difficult to get from food alone, and many of us are deficient. Supplementing with a 2:1 magnesium/calcium supplement before bedtime can benefit sleep.(46) I also like Epsom salts baths before bed.
More Strategies to Prevent a Bad Night’s Sleep
Beyond nutrients, these strategies can help you get a better night’s sleep.
- Practice sleep hygiene. Good habits like a dark, quiet room, putting away your iPhone and laptop a few hours before bed, and taking a hot bath can all improve sleep.(16) Find a routine that works for you and stick with it.
- Don’t neglect diet. In the quest for better sleep, diet often unfortunately gets short shift, yet studies show fatty, high-sugar, low-fiber diet means “lighter, less restorative sleep with more arousals.”(48) Ultimately, diet becomes the foundation for so many things including sleep.
- Become your own study. Maybe afternoon exercise helps you sleep better but a workout too close to bed keeps you wired. Tracking your behavioral patterns with a journal can help pinpoint potential obstacles that keep you from sleeping well.
- Practice mindfulness strategies. Studies show mindfulness, meditation, yoga, deep breathing, Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), and hypnosis can benefit insomnia and other sleep disorders (plus many bestow tons of other benefits). Not all of these work for everyone – you’ve got to be open to them, practice them regularly, and find a style that works for you – but used wisely they can become a helpful tool (or tools) in your sleep arsenal.
- Work with a specialist. For some people, simple hacks can yield a better night’s sleep. For others, underlying problems – everything from thyroid imbalances to heavy metal toxicity – can impede a great night’s sleep. If you’ve struggled with sleep for months or years and conventional remedies aren’t working, a sleep specialist or integrative practitioner can detect these impediments. Some of them take time to rectify, but ultimately a great night’s sleep is priceless.