Health Problems Caused By a Lack of Sleep

Sick young woman sits in bed under a blanket.

Poor sleep can make you feel run-down and sluggish the following day, but can it actually make you sick? Not getting enough sleep can create a vicious cycle of sleep debt, but you may be surprised to learn that yes— it actually can make you sick. Not only that, but insufficient sleep can contribute to or even worsen serious health problems.

I recently wrote an article about what your brain does while you sleep, and all these problems can be caused by sleep disturbances preventing your body and brain from carrying out these vital processes.

So let’s take a look at how poor sleep and sleep loss can lead to severe health issues— as well as a few tips to make sure you’re getting the rest you need.

5 Health Conditions Caused— or Worsened— by Inadequate Sleep

A lack of sleep, plus poor sleep quality, can take a significant toll on your health in many different ways. Read below to learn about just five of these conditions that can be caused or exacerbated by poor sleep.

1. Obesity

Let’s start with something we all care about— our waistlines. Put simply, poor sleep and sleep loss aren’t good for them. Research shows that sleep deprivation can lead to weight gain because of multiple negative changes to your body that would not occur if you got adequate sleep each night. Two of these changes involve how your body regulates your hormones and your appetite. 

When you don’t get sufficient sleep, your body reduces the production of leptin, a hormone that helps suppress your appetite and encourages the body to use energy. It also increases the production of ghrelin, which is known as the “hunger hormone.” Lost sleep and even too much sleep can alter your appetite, and make fatty, high-calorie junk food more tempting, making you more likely to consume more calories than you normally would.

A lack of sleep also leads the body to gain more weight— one interesting study found that seven consecutive nights of 5 hours of sleep or less led participants to gain an average of 2 pounds during the research period. The researchers also found staying up late shifted the eating habits of the study’s participants, and made them eat less healthy food.

This is a consistent trend across years of research. Another study published by The American Journal of Human Biology found that people who sleep less than 6 hours per night are more likely to have a higher body mass index.

In short— if you’re concerned about your weight or your figure, it’s important to get the sleep you need each night.

2. Diabetes

This goes hand-in-hand with the previous issue— poor sleep contributes to diabetes and can even worsen your symptoms.

In particular, Type 2 diabetes is more common for those suffering from sleep deprivation than those who get at least 7 hours of sleep each night. This is especially true for middle-aged and older adults, where those who get too little sleep each night are twice as likely to be diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes.

That’s because a good night’s sleep helps regulate glucose and, as mentioned above, your metabolism. Sleep deprivation also leads to a spike in cortisol— your body’s main stress hormone— which can make your body’s cells more resistant to insulin.

If you want to read more about the connection between poor sleep and diabetes, I recommend reading my article on the subject after you finish this one.

3. Heart Disease and Heart Attack

Your heart, just like the rest of your body, needs sleep to function at its best.

Several studies have shown that poor sleep contributes to factors leading to heart disease. One study from Tufts University observed nearly 4,000 healthy participants, tracking and monitoring their sleep. Participants who slept the least had the most harmful plaque buildup in their arteries— which increases the risk of a heart attack and is an early sign of cardiovascular disease. This holds true no matter the participant’s age, weight. or whether or not they smoke or exercise regularly.

Another study from the University of Arizona has found that a lack of quality sleep is connected to elevated blood pressure. Over an extended period, this leads to more plaque blocking the coronary arteries. Perhaps most alarming, though, is that those who sleep for 6 hours or less are 20 percent more likely to have a heart attack, compared to those who get between 6-9 hours of sleep each night.

4. Immune Function

Here’s something to keep in mind, especially during the ongoing pandemic— Your body has a much tougher time fighting back against disease and illness when it’s sleep-deprived.

Insufficient sleep or poor sleep quality reduces the production and release of cytokine, a versatile protein that helps the immune system respond to threats. When you’re sleep-deprived, your body isn’t able to act as quickly or send as much cytokine to respond to any potential illnesses you may have contracted.

One study conducted by the University of California, San Francisco showed how important sleep is to immune function. Participants had their sleep monitored for a week, and were then exposed to the common cold virus. The results were striking— participants who got 6 hours of sleep or less each night were 4.2 times more likely to develop a cold than the participants who got enough quality rest during the study period.

So for both your short-term and long-term health, it’s vital to get a good night’s sleep each night.

5. Low Sex Drive

For some, this may be the most alarming consequence of poor sleep. Simply put, not getting enough sleep kills your sex drive. This is true for both men and women.

Mens’ bodies need adequate sleep to produce testosterone. Most testosterone production occurs during sleep— primarily during REM sleep, the period of the night associated with dreaming.

But when you miss out on restful sleep, you’re also reducing testosterone production in your body. This is a problem because less testosterone typically correlates with a lower sex drive— and it doesn’t take long for poor sleep to wreak havoc on your libido. One study found that, after one week of getting 5 hours of sleep each night or less, male participants reported a 15% drop in testosterone production. Yikes!

Poor sleep also diminishes female desires as well. Research shows that a lack of sleep leads to worse vaginal lubrication and genital arousal for women— two necessary components that make sex more enjoyable and less painful.

And this one will be obvious— the more tired you are, the less inclined you are to actually have sex. About 25 percent of married Americans have said fatigue caused by sleep deprivation is the main reason they’re not having sex.

So if you want to improve your love life, start with getting more sleep.

Easy Solutions for Better Sleep

Good sleep habits are the key to healthy sleep, and healthy sleep is the key to good health. Thankfully, creating good sleep habits isn’t a difficult task. Here are four simple suggestions you can try tonight for better sleep.

  • Have a Consistent Bedtime: This is your starting point. To get better sleep, you should always follow the same bedtime every night and the same wake-up time every morning. I know this can be hard, between work and raising a family, but I promise it’s doable. If you’re not sure what your ideal bedtime should be, I recommend you check out my sleep calculator tool. Knowing your chronotype will also help you understand your individual sleep preferences— to learn your chronotype, check out my chronoquiz.
  • Take a Bath: A warm bath before bed can help encourage better blood circulation and, interestingly enough, keep you cooler at night. This can help you sleep through any potential sleep disturbances, avoid waking up during the night, and give you a better chance of completing the four stages of sleep you need for a good night’s rest. The bath doesn’t have to be long either— Just 10 minutes an hour or two before bed will help you get a better night’s sleep.
  • Limit Exposure to Blue Light: From our phones and computers to TVs and tablets, our electronic devices have become very important parts of everyday life. Unfortunately, these devices make it harder for you to fall asleep and enter REM sleep each night. That’s because these screens emit blue light, which blocks the release of melatonin and can put your body an hour behind its normal sleep schedule — even when you go to sleep at a reasonable hour. In a perfect world, we wouldn’t use our devices an hour behind bed, but I know that’s much easier said than done. If you are unable to avoid your devices before bedtime, I recommend using blue light blocking glasses to help your body produce the melatonin it needs to help you sleep.
  • Get Tested for Sleep Disorders: If you’re consistently experiencing poor sleep and you’re not sure why, then it’s likely you have a sleep disorder. Sleep disorders like insomnia and especially obstructive sleep apnea can contribute to new health problems and worsen any you may already have, so it’s vital to get tested if you think you have a sleep disorder or are at risk for one.

Sleep isn’t just for helping you feel rested and alert in the mornings. Sleep deprivation and sleep deficiency can create or worsen a lot of health problems— but on the other side of the coin, getting a good night’s sleep every night can be a significant health boost.

So whether you’re feeling great or feeling under the weather, it’s important to get your forty winks each night to keep yourself feeling healthy and energetic.

Sweet Dreams,

Michael J. Breus, PhD, FAASM

The Sleep Doctor

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Michael Breus, Ph.D - The Sleep Doctor is a Diplomate of the American Board of Sleep Medicine and a Fellow of The American Academy of Sleep Medicine and one of only 168 psychologists to pass the Sleep Medical Specialty Board without going to medical school. Dr. Breus is a sought after lecturer and his knowledge is shared daily in major national media worldwide including Today, Dr. Oz, Oprah, and for fourteen years as the sleep expert on WebMD. Dr. Breus is the bestselling author of The Power of When, The Sleep Doctor’s Diet Plan and Good Night!