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Dangerous Side Effects of Not Sleeping Enough, Say Experts

A lack of sleep can be disorienting—and also fatal.

It's understandable if you're having trouble sleeping. With the coronavirus pandemic, who can relax during a time like this? However, not getting a good night's sleep only makes things worse. "Sleep deprivation occurs when you consistently don't get the recommended amount of sleep, which is 7 to 8 hours a night," says Dr. Dearbhaile Collins. "This causes a number of physiological effects on the body"—not to mention, puts you at risk for COVID-19. Here's what happens when you can't sleep every night. Read on, and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had Coronavirus.


You'll Be More Prone to Viral Infections

Sick young woman at home on the sofa, she is covering with a blanket, taking temperature and blowing her nose with a tissue

"Lack of sleep can make people more prone to viral infection," Dr. Daniel Lanzer tells us. "In these times, increasing our susceptibility to a viral infection is the last thing we want to do—particularly as a result of poor sleep habits."


You'll Have Worse Concentration and Coordination

tired woman driver

According to Dr. Lili Barsky, another aspect of sleeping poorly is: "Poor concentration and diminished coordination—this can be especially dangerous for driving and for those who operate heavy machinery."

"For example, a lack of sleep is a commonly cited cause of car accidents," says Dr. Kim Langdon.


You'll Be at Increased Risk for Obesity

Doctor measuring obese man waist body fat. Obesity and weight to loose.

"Poor sleep affects hormones that affect appetite," says Dr. Barsky. "Poor sleep can lead to lower leptin and higher ghrelin levels, which in turn can result in overeating and obesity." Obesity increases your risk of a severe case of COVID-19. 

"Just two weeks of reduced sleep can cause significant change in the ability to lose body fat and increased hunger modulated by the hunger hormone, ghrelin," says Dr. Shadi Vahdat.


You'll Increase Your Risk for Diabetes Mellitus

Man taking blood sample with lancet pen indoors

"Inadequate sleep can reduce the body's tolerance for glucose and lead to insulin resistance and diabetes mellitus," a disorder in which blood sugar (glucose) levels are abnormally high because the body does not produce enough insulin to meet its needs, says Dr. Barsky.

"As a result of one night of poor sleep, we can see a significant worsening of insulin resistance in diabetic patients, which can impact their blood sugar control," says Dr. John Martinez. 


You'll Be at Higher Risk for Cardiovascular Diseases

african woman feeling menstrual cyclic breast pain, touching her chest,

"Impaired sleep diminishes the body's ability to regulate stress hormones, which can lead to poorly controlled blood pressure," says Dr. Barsky. 

"Inadequate and disrupted sleep has been associated with activation of stress hormones in the body which in turn increase our risk for cardiovascular diseases," says Dr. Vahdat.


You Might Develop a Fear of Losing Sleep

Middle aged woman lying awake in her bed at night, worrying because of an uncomfortable pressure in her chest and an irregular heartbeat

"You feel exhausted and may develop a fear of losing sleep," says Daniel Erichsen MD. "Hyperarousal that comes along with this fear of losing sleep can produce out of body experience, jerks, twitches, and a multitude of other frightening phenomena."


You Might Activate Your Fight or Flight Response

Frustrated Hispanic female driver in a car

"A lack of sleep can lead to an increase in stomach aches, headaches, and depression due to increased stimulation of the fight-or-flight nervous system," says Leann Poston M.D.


You Could Increase Your Risk of Cancer

woman in bed suffering from cancer

"Decreased sleep over the long-term is associated with increased tumor formation and may increase the risk of cancer," says Dr. Poston. "One of the reasons for this may be because melatonin has a significant function in coordinating many aspects of cell function and tissue repair," says Dr. Deborah Lee of Dr Fox Online Pharmacy.


You Could Shorten Your Life

woman with white lily flowers and coffin at funeral in church

"What's frightening is, poor sleep can even decrease our expected life-span," says Dusan Goljic, PharmD. "As it severely limits the quality of our life."


You'll Feel More Stressed

stressed woman

"The body needs sleep to recover and normalize stress hormones," says Andrea Paul, MD, Medical Advisor to Illuminate Labs. "So, when you consistently get poor sleep you're going to feel more mentally stressed and on-edge."


You Could Become More Forgetful

Horizontal portrait of stressful stylish unshaven male regrets something, keeps hand on head, looks down in despair

"Attention and focus are also impacted with poor sleep, and people will experience trouble learning and retaining new material, or being increasingly forgetful of previously learned material," says Alex Dimitriu, MD.


You'll Lower Testosterone Levels

testosterone hormone test result with blood sample tube

"A lack of sleep has been linked to lower production and levels of testosterone," says Dr. Lanzer. "Among other symptoms, low testosterone can impact sex drive, and ability to build/maintain muscle mass."


It Could Lower Your Libido

worried man in protective mask sitting on stairs at home staircase during lockdown and quarantine for covid-19

"People who don't get enough sleep generally report a lower sex drive," says David Cutler, MD. "People who experience tense tiredness are too anxious to relax," according to WebMD. "Tension and anxiety are very basic to sexual dysfunction most of the time."


Your Skin Could Age

middle age woman to see a mirror

"As a dermatologist, I am concerned about the effects of insufficient sleep on the skin. Several studies have shown that chronic poor-quality sleep is associated with skin aging," says Dr. Kemunto Mokaya. "The skin renews itself during sleep and repairs some of the effects of oxidative stress during sleep."


You Could Have Weaker Social Skills

woman sitting in chair in pastel sweater eating a frozen (TV) dinner

"Poor sleep also affects your social skills. It is associated with poorer mental health, anxiety, depression, and loneliness," says Dr. Lee. "Poor sleep is also linked to lover academic achievements."


If You Can Fall Asleep, Don't Sleep for Too Long

Woman sleeping in bed

"It is well known that the amount of proper sleep is not the same for all individuals, but a minimum of about seven hours seems to be helpful on average," says Dr. Levine. "In addition, sleeping too many hours creates daytime drowsiness."


What Else to Keep in Mind

Man using his mobile phone in the bed

"If you find yourself dealing with insomnia on a regular basis, consider learning about sleep hygiene," says Dr. Jason Levine. Don't use devices an hour before bed, for example. "Consider meeting with a clinical psychologist and, possibly, a psychiatrist to assess and offer proper treatment and support." So stay healthy during this pandemic: Practice good sleep hygiene, wear a mask, avoid crowds (and bars), practice social distancing and to get through this pandemic at your healthiest, don't miss these 35 Places You're Most Likely to Catch COVID.

Emilia Paluszek
Emilia specializes in human biology and psychology at the University at Albany. Read more about Emilia
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