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Five startling effects of lack of sleep

by Sonia Chartier, on 18 October 2016, Stress and sleep
lack of sleep

co-written by Rick Olazabal, BSc, BN 

According to Harvard Medical School, most people don’t get enough sleep. I’m guilty of this myself! As I sit here, typing away about sleep, I still have a pile of articles to get through and patient charts to review.

This may not be uncommon to many of you; especially if you have a family, have a demanding job, or are currently in school. Modern North American society forces us to be always on the go…

What are common causes of lack of sleep?

Lack of sleep is multifactorial. It may be as simple as lifestyle (e.g. staying up late watching tv or studying and having to get up early), or due to a serious medical (or psychiatric) conditions (e.g. depression, anxiety, pain).

Take, for example, insomnia, which can be broken down into sleep initiation insomnia (i.e. cannot fall asleep) and sleep maintenance insomnia (i.e. cannot stay asleep). People who cannot fall asleep may be dealing with high stress (or anxiety), use of stimulants (e.g. coffee, or tea; sugary foods or drinks), or even lower levels of melatonin due to light pollution and exposure to electronic device screens.

People who cannot stay asleep or wake up in the middle of the night may be dealing with hormonal changes (e.g. symptoms of perimenopause), chronic or acute pain, depression, changes to their blood sugar levels, and/or obstructive sleep apnea.

How does lack of sleep affect our body’s functions?

Studies from Harvard University have explored the short and long term effects of lack of sleep. In the short term, lack sleep affects judgment, mood, and memory. It has also been linked to an increase the risk of serious accidents such as driving fatalities. In the long term, sleep deprivation can lead to obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease—and early mortality.

What are the effects?

  • Accidents: lack of sleep inhibits our ability to make crucial decisions, concentrate or access mathematical or logical reasoning.
  • Obesity: During sleep, our bodies secrete hormones that help to control appetite, energy and metabolism. Poor sleep is also associated with increases in the secretion of insulin; higher levels of insulin are associated with weight gain, a risk factor for diabetes.
  • Infection: substances produced by the immune system to help fight infection cause fatigue. People who sleep more when sick are better able to fight an infection than those who don’t.
  • High blood pressure: a single night of inadequate sleep, in people who have existing high blood pressure, can cause elevated blood pressure throughout the following day.
  • Lower sex drive: this particularly important for men, as lack of sleep lowers testosterone levels. Men with obstructive sleep apnea are at higher risk.

What can be done to help?

Start with a self reflection; ask yourself, “what is causing this lack of sleep?”

  • Is it because you enjoy staying up late catching up on Netflix? (I have a friend who stays up late because of “FOMO”—Fear Of Missing Out!)
  • Is it because you have a large to-do list?
  • Is it because you’re forgetting something?
  • Are you stressed out, or upset?

Often, I find that writing down what you need to do can help, but also write down what you’ve actually accomplished! If you’re upset, write down how feel and why. If you don’t know why you can’t sleep, then I highly recommend speaking with a licensed naturopathic doctor first because of the holistic approach and the emphasis on removing obstacles to your wellbeing (i.e. treating the root cause).

Of course, sometimes you may need a prescription medication, but these should not be used in the long term (as they interfere with restorative sleep and can lead to rebound insomnia).

Ask your naturopathic doctor about herbal (e.g. valerian, hops, chamomile, passion flower, ziziphus, skullcap, California poppy, etc.), nutritional alternatives (e.g. 5HTP, melatonin, L-theanine), which can be quite effective when used appropriately.

In terms of lifestyle factors, aim to get 8 hours of sleep (this is due to the number of REM cycles). Turn off electronic devices—you may want to look into blue light filters for your phone and computer. It has been well established that blue light emitted from electronics inhibit the production of melatonin (the sleep producing hormone).

And although we haven’t discussed any of it in this article, I will wish to remind you not to forget to exercise, which can help reduce stress, regulate blood sugar, and help you sleep much better at night!

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