Is lack of sleep harmful to my health?

DEAR DOCTOR K:

Between work and caring for my kids, I barely get four hours of sleep a night. Are there long-term consequences of this kind of sleep deprivation?

DEAR READER:

If you are like most people, you’re not getting enough sleep, and there could be consequences. There are some people who appear to need less sleep than the average person and who don’t pay a price for getting less of it. But we’re not sure of that, and we don’t know how to identify such people.

So I have to assume you’re like the average person, who needs seven and a half to eight hours per night. If so, then sleeping only four hours a night means you are suffering from partial sleep deprivation. You are getting some sleep, but not the amount that most people need.

After only two or more nights of short sleep, most people usually show signs of irritability and sleepiness. Work performance begins to suffer, and you’re more likely to experience headaches, stomach problems and sore joints. You’re also at far higher risk of falling asleep while driving.

But inadequate sleep over months or years can have more serious, potentially life-threatening consequences:

  • Viral infections. There’s some evidence that when you’re tired, you’re more likely to get sick.
  • Weight gain. Sleep deprivation can make you feel hungrier and slow your body’s metabolism. And when you’re tired, you’re less likely to exercise. Taken together, this combination can lead to unhealthy weight gain.
  • Diabetes. Insufficient sleep can disrupt your body’s hormone regulation, increasing your risk for Type 2 diabetes.
  • High blood pressure. Sleeping fewer than six hours per night appears to increase your risk of high blood pressure.
  • Heart disease. One large study found that compared with women who slept for seven hours, women who got no more than four hours of shut-eye were twice as likely to die from heart disease. That’s not surprising, given the effects of short sleep on heart disease risk factors. Still, it was a wake-up call for the women who were the focus of the study — women who have too much to do and too little time to do it.
  • Mental illness. Sleep problems often precede a diagnosis of major depression and anxiety.

Clearly, sleep is not a luxury, but a basic component of a healthy lifestyle. Getting enough sleep requires discipline. Block off certain hours for sleep and then follow through.

And it’s not just the number of hours between when you lie down and when you wake up that matters. It’s also the quality of sleep during those hours. Here are some tips for getting a sound sleep:

  • Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, even on weekends.
  • Use the bed only for sleeping or sex.
  • Forgo naps, especially close to bedtime.
  • Limit the time you spend in bed. Turn in only when you’re sleepy. If you don’t fall asleep within 15 minutes or if you wake up and can’t fall back to sleep within that amount of time, get out of bed and do something relaxing until you feel sleepy again.
  • Avoid caffeine-containing beverages (coffee, many teas, chocolate, and cola drinks) after 2 p.m., or noon if you’re caffeine-sensitive.
  • Avoid eating foods that contribute to heartburn.
  • Don’t drink alcohol for at least two hours before bedtime.
  • Limit fluids before bedtime to minimize nighttime trips to the bathroom.
  • Stop smoking, or at least do not smoke for one to two hours before turning in for the night.
  • Exercise regularly (but not within two hours of bedtime).
  • Keep the bedroom cool, dark, and as quiet as possible.
  • Replace a worn-out or uncomfortable mattress.
  • Take a hot bath before bedtime.
  • Use relaxation techniques before bedtime.

We also have more information on sleep deprivation in our Special Health Report, “Improving Sleep.” You can learn more about this report here.