There is currently a global epidemic that has gained alarming levels of concern, with far-reaching consequences that many are entirely unaware of. I am not talking about climate change, the current economic crisis or the military struggles splashed across the news today. This pandemic resides a little closer to home, intimately entwined in our lives, and happens in our own beds, our own bodies. The monster’s name is sleep deprivation.In recent years the World Health Organization has declared a sleep loss epidemic throughout the westernized world. Two-thirds of all adults, spanning all developed nations, fail to secure the recommended eight hours of sleep at night. Chronic sleep loss not only makes you overtired, but it can ultimately lead to a whole slew of life-threatening diseases, many of which scientific studies are only just now uncovering, including the increased risk of premature mortality.
Matthew Walker’s book Why We Sleep, (a highly engaging and informative read) discusses the science behind sleep- what we know and what we still don’t know. His research illustrates the required functionality of sleep, and how lack of it can cause debilitating consequences in people all over the world.
The Truth Behind Sleep Deprivation
Walker asserts that sleep is the foundation of which we exist, and when that suffers, we, in our entirety, suffer. He underlines this important point referring to the fact, “there are more than twenty large-scale epidemiological studies that have tracked millions of people over many decades, all of which report the same clear relationship: the shorter your sleep, the shorter your life.”
Industrialized nations, such as the US, UK, Japan, South Korea, and parts of western Europe that possess declining sleep times are witnessing a dramatic increase in cases of mental disorders and physical diseases.
Educating yourself on the dangers of sleep deprivation can be the catalyst for catching a better night’s sleep. Once you understand the issues, you can take steps to change the way you achieve your shut-eye and improve sleep quality and overall health.
1. DOUBLES THE RISK OF CANCER
The body’s immune system is the first line of defence when facing the uphill battle of sleep loss. Even more, Walker states, ‘Every major system, tissue, and organ of your body suffers when sleep becomes short.’ When a person routinely sleeps less than six or seven hours a night, referred to as chronic sleep loss or sleep deprivation, it can double the risk of cancer in that individual.
You read that right. If you do not procure enough sleep each night, over a long period, you have a two-fold greater chance of developing cancer. And that’s mostly because the loss of sleep will compromise the immune system, which in turn makes it more likely that cancerous cells will develop in the body.
Natural killer cells are a huge part of the immune system, and are essentially the secret agents of the body- protecting against foreign entities. They are even responsible for targeting and destroying cancerous tumour cells.
These strong immune cells are precisely the defence you want working for you in your body. Unfortunately, a lack of sleep will disrupt natural killer cells’ ability to do their job correctly.
This harrowing connection is even more unsettling when taking a look at a recent study completed by Dr Michael Irwin at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Dr Irwin examined the state of natural killer cells in healthy, young men, after just ONE NIGHT of poor sleep. By knocking down the hours of sleep, from 8 to 4 hours, he found that there was a 70% drop of natural killer cells in the immune system the following day.
Now imagine the state of an immune system in a body that routinely deals with sleep loss, in a week, a month, a year.
A European study examined almost 25, 000 individuals, their sleep patterns, and their chances of developing cancer. Research illustrated that the participants that slept 6 or less hours a night, versus those who obtained 7 hours or more, were associated with a 40% increased risk of developing cancer. A similar study conducted on over 75, 000 women found the same stats.
Further studies have explored this connection, finding that those who routinely perform nighttime shift work, continuously disrupting their sleep-wake cycle, are more likely to develop cancer- multiple types of cancer. Currently, the development of breast, prostate, uterus, and colon cancers have all been linked to sleep loss.
2. INCREASES RISK OF CARDIOVASCULAR DISEASE
Lack of sleep can affect your body’s coronary arteries- causing them to become blocked and brittle. Blocked arteries can ultimately lead to cardiovascular disease, possible stroke, and congestive heart failure.
A 2011 study followed approximately 500, 000 thousand men and women, from various ages, ethnicities, and races, across eight countries, concluding that over time, a lack of sleep was linked with a 45% increased rate of developing, and in some cases dying from, coronary heart disease. Even accounting for lifestyle factors such as physical activity, body mass, and smoking and drinking, the evidence for heart problems linked to less sleep was insurmountable.
Everyone knows about the midlife crisis- but it is at this time that people are most susceptible to the adverse effects of sleep deprivation. The real midlife crisis is the realization that adults forty-five or older that sleep less than six hours per night are 200% more likely to experience a heart attack or stroke in their lifetime- compared to their counterparts that slept seven to eight hours a night.
Much of the issue stems from the effects of sleep deprivation on blood pressure. Just one or two hours of missed sleep a night will escalate that person’s heart rate, which in turn increases the blood pressure, leading to the erosion of the coronary arteries.
High blood pressure, also known as Hypertension, does not seem to evoke the worry it once did. An estimated 1.13 billion people worldwide have Hypertension, with fewer than 1 in 5 cases having their blood pressure problem under control. High blood pressure is undeniably linked with the development of other heart problems. This link is frightening when you consider that in 2017 alone, more than 7 million people died from cardiac failure, heart disease, and kidney failure. All of these diseases can be linked to insufficient sleep.
Referred to as the corridors of life by Walker, the coronary arteries must be kept wide open at all times to allow blood to reach the heart. If these arteries are blocked in any way, it can promptly lead to fatal heart attacks. Atherosclerosis, a build-up of hardened calcium deposits along these corridors, is one such cause.
The University of Chicago studied the effects of sleep on coronary arteries. The team of researchers followed 500 healthy midlife adults, none of which had any existing heart diseases or issues, mapping their sleep patterns in connection to their health. Individuals that routinely slept five or six hours a night were 200 to 300 per cent more likely to develop calcification of the coronary arteries, compared to those who slept seven to eight hours.
Regular daytime napping can actually improve heart health, new studies show.So catching quality daytime and nighttime sleep can help keep your heart healthy.
3. PLAYS A ROLE IN THE DEVELOPMENT OF ALZHEIMER’S DISEASE
Alzheimer’s Disease is a progressive disease that has no known cure. Memory loss and damage to cognitive abilities are the most widely known and recognized symptoms.
A recent analysis of 27 studies, with information culminated from roughly 70 000 participants asserts that ‘approximately 15% of Alzheimer’s disease cases in the population may be attributed to sleep problems’. This research, as published in Brain, A Journal of Neurology, found that those who suffered from sleep problems had a 1.5 times greater chance of developing Alzheimers. This means that constant, inadequate levels of sleep is a crucial lifestyle factor in determining whether or not you could develop Alzheimer’s disease in the future.
One small study took an in-depth look at this newfound connection, examining how sleep loss increases the production of beta-amyloid, a protein knowingly linked to Alzheimer’s disease.
Beta-amyloid is found in the fluid between brain cells (neurons) and is a metabolic waste product. If there is a buildup of this protein in the fluid, it causes impaired function of the brain, essentially blocking communication between neurons. Such blockage causes the failure of cognitive abilities and can lead to the development of Alzheimer’s.
Current studies have examined the role sleep plays in clearing this beta-amyloid from the brain, but further analysis could result in the development of effective treatments. Additional research must be completed to more clearly define the connection between sleep loss and this life-altering disease, but it’s a start.
4. EXACERBATES ANXIETY, DEPRESSION, AND SUICIDAL THOUGHTS
A 2014 study examined the link between sleep deprivation and depression among adolescents. Over four-thousand youths, aged 11 to 17, who routinely achieved less than six hours of sleep at night, were found to have a 25% to 38% increase risk of developing depressive symptoms.
Cross-sectional studies highlight this connection further. Sleep-deprived adolescents are more likely to report symptoms of depression, anxiety, anger, drug and alcohol use, as well as suicidal thoughts and behaviours. Considering that the second-highest cause of death in adolescents is by their own hand, chronic sleep loss is quite literally a life-threatening issue in teens. But they are not the only age group to suffer.
The National Institute of Mental Health Epidemiologic Catchment Area questioned almost 8000 individuals on their sleep quality and psychiatric state. Of the sample size, 10% of participants noted they had insomnia. Of that percentage, 40% of individuals stated a mental disorder compared to the 16.4% of individuals that had no issues sleeping. The risk of developing major depression exponentially grew in those who reported insomnia.
This epidemiology study reaffirms that fact, revealing that those who have insomnia are almost ten times more likely to report symptoms of depression too. There is a direct relationship between insomnia and suicide as well, with over 20 studies, and 60 research reports, reinforcing this link, spanning all age groups.Impaired decision making and problem-solving have been linked to reduced sleep quality. Those who attempted suicide also showed a greater inability to problem solve. This deficiency in decision making, as related to both insomnia and suicidal thoughts, could further illustrate a deep connection between the two.
One study tracked the rate of suicide attempts among individuals with insomnia by looking at hospitalization data from the National Health Insurance Research Database. Almost 500, 000 thousand patients, 15 years and older, were examined, illustrating that insomnia patients had a 3.5-fold suicide risk over patients that had zero sleep issues. Of these cases, female patients and those aged 25 to 44 were at the greatest risk of suicidal tendencies.
5. CAN LEAD TO THE ON-SET OF TYPE 2 DIABETES
Weight gain, obesity, and the risk of developing type 2 diabetes are all very real side effects of chronic sleep loss. A healthy body has no problem triggering the hormone insulin to aid cells in absorbing glucose from the bloodstream. However, certain factors can affect these cells, such as sleep deprivation, causing an inability in cells to respond to insulin and absorb glucose from the bloodstream.
A single week of sleep deprivation can cause the body to lose 40% of its ability to absorb glucose, compared to a week of full rest. When this happens, the body will revert to a hyperglycemic state. If left untreated, the body will transition to a pre-diabetic state and ultimately into full-blown type 2 diabetes.
Poor sleep quality is not only a personal health problem but a Public one too. Chronic sleep deprivation is now recognized as a major contributor to the growing rate of type 2 diabetes in first-world countries.
The International Diabetes Federation released a 2019 report with staggering stats. The cost of treating diabetes has skyrocketed, with health expenditures reaching over 760 billion US dollars in 2019 alone. The monetary costs of treatment are only a drop in the bucket when you consider the adverse effects diabetes has on a person’s life.
Unregulated and high blood sugar, over a lifetime, is scientifically proven to lead to an array of life-altering and life-threatening diseases. Eye diseases that end in blindness, nerve diseases leading to amputations, kidney failure, hypertension, and heart diseases are all possibilities. With all of this information in mind, it may come as no surprise that diabetes can sever ten years off a person’s life expectancy.
On top of this, the IDF report highlighted that approximately 4.2 million deaths were attributed to diabetes. 463 million adults are living with diabetes, and that number is projected to almost double by 2045. Half of these individuals go undiagnosed, meaning over 232 million people have no idea they’re at a higher risk of developing life-threatening diseases.
A review of numerous surveys illustrates the stark connection between those who slept on average less than six hours per night, with a tenfold greater risk of premature mortality, over those who secured seven to nine hours of sleep.
The evidence is undeniable, and the effects, far-reaching. There is a very real and frightening connection between chronic sleep loss, disease, and death. Sleep quality should no longer be placed on the backburner of people’s lives. Instead, this activity, or lack thereof, takes up a third of our entire lives, and should, therefore, receive the attention and concern it deserves.
If you suffer from insomnia and are looking for ways to achieve a greater level of sleep to offset the dangers of sleep deprivation, then check out our top ten techniques for falling asleep faster. Otherwise, take a look at our Sleep Foundations page to find products that could help you achieve a better night’s sleep.