It is recommended that adults sleep at least 7 hours per night and that teenagers sleep at least 8 hours per night. However, over one-third of adults and two-thirds of high school aged people in the United States do not get enough sleep on a regular basis. Lack of sleep is an epidemic in the United States and has many negative short-term and long-term effects.

Short-term effect #1: Increased appetite

The negative short-term effects of sleep deprivation extend beyond feeling tired and less productive. A lack of sleep disrupts the levels of various hormones in your body. When you are sleep deprived your body produces higher levels of the hormone ghrelin, which increases appetite, and lower levels of the hormone leptin, which decreases appetite. Consequently, people who are sleep deprived tend to feel hungrier and eat more calories.

Short-term effect #2: Greater risk of accidents

A lack of sleep has a significant impact on judgement and decision making. It is believed that sleep deprivation may have been a cause of both the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster and the Exxon Valdez oil spill. This effect on judgement is a big concern, even for people not working in a nuclear power plant or oil rig. A study in 2018 found that sleep deprived drivers are significantly more likely to cause car accidents than rested drivers, with the greatest risk among drivers who have received less than four hours of sleep. 

Short-term effect #3: Reduced memory and concentration

Sleep deprivation can have a significant impact on cognitive ability. Researchers have found that a lack of sleep has a similar effect on mental performance as alcohol impairment. This reduces alertness, makes concentration more difficult, and impairs reasoning ability. Meanwhile, sufficient sleep improves memory, problem-solving ability, and critical thinking skills in both children and adults. 

Long-term effect #1: Weight gain and diabetes

As discussed earlier, sleep deprivation can cause an increase in appetite. Additionally, continual lack of sleep is associated with a decrease in exercise and increase in the body’s production of cortisol. These factors can lead to rapid weight gain in people who habitually receive less sleep than recommended. Sleep deficiency also disrupts insulin production and the processing of glucose in the blood. This can increase blood sugar levels and put people at risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

Long-term effect #2: Depression and anxiety

Lack of sleep causes irritability in the short term, but can lead to more serious mental health issues in the long term. People with sleeping disorders, such as insomnia or obstructive sleep apnea, are found to have significantly higher rates of depression than people without those conditions. Additionally, sleep deprivation increases the production of the hormone cortisol. Higher levels of cortisol in the body are linked to an increase in anxiety. This can be especially problematic, as increases in depression and anxiety can have a negative effect on a person’s ability to sleep well consistently.

Long-term effect #3: Weakened immune system

A lack of sufficient sleep can have a significant effect on the body’s immune response. The body’s immune system releases proteins called cytokines during sleep. In addition to helping with sleep, these cytokines are an important part of the immune response when exposed to a virus. For optimal immune strength, it is recommended that adults receive at least 8 hours of sleep every night.

Tips for practicing better sleep hygiene

Considering the COVID-19 pandemic and increasing rates of depression and anxiety, consistently sleeping a sufficient amount is increasingly important to both physical and mental wellbeing. A great way to help improve your sleep is by budgeting enough time to sleep the proper amount and practicing proper sleep hygiene each night. Introducing a pre-bed routine is a great way to fall asleep easier and improve sleep quality. Other techniques for improving sleep include going to sleep at the same time each day, disconnecting from electronic devices 30 minutes before going to sleep, and monitoring intake of caffeine and alcohol prior to sleeping. Using these techniques and budgeting enough time to sleep a sufficient amount each night can significantly improve physical and mental health in the short and long-term.