6 Things that Happen When You Don’t Get Enough Sleep

Dr. Mitchel Schwindt
February 26, 2018

6 Things that Happen When You Don’t Get Enough Sleep

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When was the last time you felt rested? (and I’m not talking about that one amazing Sunday when you slept til noon). I mean, well and truly rested and ready to take on the day. “Nobody gets enough sleep these days,” you reply with a shrug, as if we should expect anything else. A “good night’s sleep” just isn’t a priority anymore.

The fast-paced pressures of life and constant online connectivity force many of us to skip out on an essential part of our day—sleep. However, burning the candle at both ends isn’t something your body can just shrug off. In fact, sleep deprivation produces cumulative, long-term negative affects on your metabolism, mood, heart health, and yes—even your sex life. Forget what you’ve heard about DaVinci sleeping two hours a night. Your body needs sleep.

Here’s why sleep matters so much, and what happens to your body when you experience sleep deprivation.

Table of Contents

Why Sleep is So Important

sleep

Honestly, no one really understands why we sleep. Doctors can describe how we sleep in exquisite detail—the different phases of sleep, brain wave patterns, REM, and sleep cycles. However, the function of sleep—the reason why—is still largely a mystery. But we do know one important reason why we sleep. Regular sleep is essential for hormone regulation. And hormones are a big deal.

Your body releases a lot of hormones into the bloodstream during sleep

Sleep Deprivation and Hormone Imbalance

People typically associate hormones with puberty, but hormones drive most of our body’s daily functions. Hormones control cellular growth and repair, sexual development, reproduction, our stress response, hair growth, milk production, glucose levels, and metabolism to name just a few. And the command center in charge of this massive network of interdependent systems is an organ that’s about the size of a pea—the pituitary gland.

This “master gland” sends messenger signals to organs throughout the body telling them to secrete hormones for all sorts of things. For example, when the pituitary gland secretes prolactin, breast tissue starts producing breast milk. The pituitary directly influences other organs like the adrenal glands, thyroid, ovaries, and testes in similar ways.

If your body is an orchestra, the pituitary gland is the conductor

It doesn’t play the music, but it keeps the beat to make sure every instrument sounds like part of a unified symphony instead of a screaming match. Sleep matters so much because your hormone production spikes when you’re asleep. If you miss those few precious hours of rest, it can have some surprisingly negative effects on your health. And there’s one hormone in particular that can make getting a good night’s sleep really difficult.

Fight or Flight: Stress, Adrenaline, and Insomnia

One of the biggest reason you can’t get to sleep has to do with how you process stress and adrenaline. Stick with me on this.

When you experience stress—whether it’s a lion chasing you or deleting a 26-page spreadsheet before the big meeting—your body produces adrenaline. Adrenaline powers your “fight or flight response,” and in a very real sense turns you into a part-time superhero.

Adrenaline is responsible for:

      • Increasing your heart rate and blood pressure (better circulation)
      • Widening the passages of your lungs (more oxygen)
      • Dilating your pupils (more light=better vision)
      • Increasing blood glucose levels in your brain (faster/better decision making)
      • Adrenaline even reroutes blood from non-vital processes to your muscles (increased strength and endurance)

Adrenaline is amazing. It’s what gives mothers the strength to lift a Buick off of a trapped child. Unfortunately, when it comes to stress and adrenaline, your body has a one-size-fits-all approach. Real world danger and chronic stress both get the same stress response (a lot of adrenaline in your bloodstream). And there’s one other thing that adrenaline is fantastic at—keeping you awake.

Stress and Insomnia

insomnia

When you experience prolonged periods of stress (aka “life in the 21st century”) your pituitary gland secretes a chemical called adrenocorticotrophic. In addition to adrenaline, this hormone triggers the release of cortisone and cortisol, which raise glucose levels making you both hungry and more alert (midnight snack, anyone?). So it’s not surprising that one study found higher levels of adrenocorticotrophic in people with insomnia than in good sleepers.

Your brain treats all stress levels equally, whether it’s fighting a lion or an missing a work deadline

Long term exposure to cortisol can also result in high blood pressure, a weakened immune system, insulin resistance, and an increased risk of developing diabetes. You’re just not supposed to operate at 100% capacity all the time, and when you do your normal sleep cycle is one of the first things to suffer.

Sleep Deprivation and Weight Gain

Sleep deprivation also wreaks havoc on your metabolism. Your thyroid produces two key hormones that regulate your appetite—ghrelin and leptin. Ghrelin increases your appetite. Leptin suppresses it. Leptin is slower acting than ghrelin, so when you don’t sleep well, leptin production dips below the faster acting ghrelin, and you wake up (and stay) hungrier. Look down at your belly and see if you notice one of the more obvious signs of sleep deprivation.

The biggest problem with ghrelin/leptin hormone imbalance is that it quickly becomes self-sustaining. Less sleep means more hunger, which leads to obesity—one of the biggest risk factors for developing sleep apnea (and another cause of sleep deprivation). As your BMI increases, you become resistant to leptin and insulin, and your risk for diabetes and high blood pressure increase. But there’s one final (important) consequence of sleep deprivation. Insomnia can be bad for your sex life.

Sleep and Testosterone

A recent study noted that after as little as one week of poor sleep can decrease testosterone levels by as much as 15%. Missing sleep—even for a few days—can give you the testosterone levels of a man decades older than you. And it’s not just about guys.

A University of Michigan study revealed that women who sleep better have increased interest in sex and also vaginal lubrication. Also, when your snoring (aka sleep apnea) keeps your partner up, her testosterone (and libido) decreases as well.

1 week of “poor sleep” can decrease testosterone levels by as much as 15%

The Importance of Sleep

sleep deprivation

The negative health impacts of sleep deprivation are widespread and fast acting. Avoiding alcohol before bed, turning off the tv and keeping phones out of the bedroom are a few simple ways to start getting a better night’s sleep. Loud snoring, waking up at night, stopping breathing while sleeping and chronic daytime fatigue are all warning signs of sleep apnea. Talk to your doctor and ask if you can order a sleep study. Your partner will thank you for it.

Geek Out: More Sleep Disorder Resources

Not enough info for you? No problem. Nerd out on sleep deprivation with research from the most trusted sources on the interwebs. If you have any questions or you think we missed something important, leave a comment or book a consultation with one of these trained professionals and we’ll get you on the way to a healthier manhood.

This information is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. It should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. If you have any questions or concerns, please talk to your doctor.

Dr. Schwindt is a board-certified Emergency Medicine physician in practice for nearly 20 years. He’s passionate about the power of technology and innovation to improve health and pursuit of proactive, functional medicine. Dr. Schwindt is an advisor to several innovative health and technology companies and part of a team expanding the role of genetic testing in delivering personalized healthcare tailored to a patient’s unique needs. He also writes widely about health and medical related topics, is a plant-based certified chef and enjoys endurance sports like triathlon and trail running.

Dr. Mitchel Schwindt

Dr. Schwindt is a board-certified Emergency Medicine physician in practice for nearly 20 years. He's passionate about the power of technology and innovation to improve health and pursuit of proactive, functional medicine. Dr. Schwindt is an advisor to several innovative health and technology companies and part of a team expanding the role of genetic testing in delivering personalized healthcare tailored to a patient’s unique needs. He also writes widely about health and medical related topics, is a plant-based certified chef and enjoys endurance sports like triathlon and trail running.

All stories by:Dr. Mitchel Schwindt
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Dr. Mitchel Schwindt

Dr. Schwindt is a board-certified Emergency Medicine physician in practice for nearly 20 years. He's passionate about the power of technology and innovation to improve health and pursuit of proactive, functional medicine. Dr. Schwindt is an advisor to several innovative health and technology companies and part of a team expanding the role of genetic testing in delivering personalized healthcare tailored to a patient’s unique needs. He also writes widely about health and medical related topics, is a plant-based certified chef and enjoys endurance sports like triathlon and trail running.

All stories by:Dr. Mitchel Schwindt