When you think about the key components of a healthy lifestyle, your mind probably jumps straight to fitness and diet. You know – the things we do, the decisions we make and the actions we take. 

But in all of our busy efforts to stay healthy, we forget about one major pillar of health: sleep. Sleep isn’t just good for us. Sleep is the single most effective thing we can do to reset the brain and body every single day. And all we have to do is sleep. But most Americans aren’t sleeping enough. The question is: Are you?

We don’t get enough sleep

The National Geographic documentary, Sleepless in America, tells us we have a sleep loss epidemic on our hands. But what does that look like in real life?

A 2016 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) revealed some alarming news. Over 30 percent of American adults don’t get enough sleep on a regular basis. 

How much sleep should we be getting? The CDC says a healthy amount is seven hours (or more) per night. But over one third of Americans, age 18-60, are sleeping less than seven hours each night. 

Both the National Sleep Foundation and the World Health Organization report something even more dire: sleep deprivation isn’t just a problem in the United States. It’s a worldwide issue. On average, two thirds of adults in developed countries get less than eight hours of sleep each night. 

Why is sleep deprivation such a widespread problem?

There’s a good chance you fit into these statistics. And while we all want to fit in, this isn’t the kind of trend that’s cool or healthy. Nonetheless, sleep deprivation prevails. 

But why is that? Why do we place such little value on sleep when it’s so crucial to health and wellness?

Here are some reasons why we skimp on sleep:

Technology

According to a report from the US Department of Health and Human Services, Americans living in the early 1900s used to get an average of nine hours of sleep each night. Now, thanks to digital screens, blue light and electricity, our surroundings are much brighter and more stimulating. Without a doubt, this interferes with not only how much we sleep but how we’re sleeping, too. 

We value work, not rest

America, along with other developed countries, places a very high capital on work, work, work, work, work – in the words of Rihanna. And while it’s important to hustle and work your way to the top, many of us pay a very high price for this: we’re not sleeping enough.

We don’t understand sleep

If you think sleep is just a time for rest and relaxation – a time when the brain and body “shut down”, think again! Even if it looks like we’re doing nothing, sleep is actually a time when the brain and body get a big reset. And for this reason, when we skimp on sleep, our health suffers. A lot!

These are just three reasons why we don’t sleep as much as we need to. But it’s time to change that. Not getting enough sleep can have serious, if not life-threatening, effects on your health.

Why sleep is crucial for your brain and body

Since it doesn’t seem like we’re doing anything when we’re snoozing, we believe we can skimp on sleep. But here are seven major reasons why this is not a good idea.

Not sleeping enough weakens the immune system

According to a study in the aptly named journal, Sleep, we learn that sleep deprivation can affect the immune system in a similar way as stress. In the study, researchers measured white blood cells when individuals slept for eight hours versus staying awake for 29 hours. 

The study’s main author, Katrin Ackermann, PhD shared that the white blood cells “reacted immediately to the physical stress of sleep loss and directly mirrored the body’s stress response.” 

Sleep deprivation increases the risk of some cancers

Studies are emerging that link sleep deprivation with certain cancers, specially prostrate cancer, colorectal cancer and breast cancer. 

This increased risk may be attributed to the fact that sleep deprivation interrupts an individual’s natural circadian wake-sleep cycle. This in turn, weakens the body’s immune system and interferes with its ability to repair DNA.

Skimping on sleep increases the risk of neurological disease, including Alzheimer’s disease

Did you know that one night of missed sleep can lead to a build up of a specific protein associated with Alzheimer’s disease? Unnerving, but true, insufficient sleep can lead to too much beta-amyloid protein in the brain. This is a form of metabolic waste that’s also found in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. 

Lack of sleep disrupts blood sugar levels and increases risk for type II diabetes

Poor sleep habits can wreak havoc on blood sugar levels and set you up for type II diabetes. And while this is a complex topic, suffice it to say not getting enough sleep elevates both insulin and cortisol levels, increasing your risk for diabetes.  

Insufficient sleep increases risk of high blood pressure and heart disease 

Sleep deprivation hurts your heart. This study found that sleep deprivation increases activity in the sympathetic nervous system. And this activity is common to both high blood pressure and heart disease. 

A lack of sleep also increases inflammation throughout the body, which can also set us up for serious cardiovascular problems.

According to Dr. Susan Redline from Harvard Medical School, “Sleep-deprived people have higher blood levels of stress hormones and substances that indicate inflammation, a key player in cardiovascular disease. Even a single night of insufficient sleep can perturb your system.”

If one bad night of sleep can disrupt our body, you can only imagine what chronic sleep deprivation can do to your health!

Insufficient sleep contributes to mental health problems 

Sleep problems are often a symptom of psychiatric illnesses. However, researchers are finding that not getting enough sleep can actually cause psychological problems. 

In an enlightening study, entitled “The human emotional brain without sleep – a preforontal amygdala disconnect,” lead-author,  Matthew Walker, shares that, “Sleep appears to restore our emotional brain circuits, and in doing so prepares us for the next day’s challenges and social interactions. Most importantly, this study demonstrates the dangers of not sleeping enough. 

Sleep deprivation fractures the brain mechanisms that regulate key aspects of our mental health. The bottom line is that sleep is not a luxury that we can optionally choose to take whenever we like. It is a biological necessity, and without it, there is only so far the band will stretch before it snaps, with both cognitive and emotional consequences.”

In extreme cases, not sleeping enough can even increase suicidal ideation, driving Walker’s point home: sleep isn’t an option.

Not enough sleep can lead to weight gain and even obesity

Fitness and diet are important factors in maintaining a healthy body weight. But don’t forget about sleep. This 2012 study shows that “short or poor quality sleep is linked to increased risk of obesity by de-regulating appetite, leading to increased energy consumption.”

In short, the less you sleep, the more you eat, and the harder it is for the body’s metabolism to keep up with all these extra calories. This can lead to unhealthy weight gain, and in some cases, obesity. 

Are you sleeping enough?

As you can see, sleep plays a huge role in staying healthy. Without it, we increase the risk of serious health problems, including cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s disease, obesity, type II diabetes and even psychological problems. 

Are you getting enough sleep?