What happens to your body when you’re short on sleep? The alarming facts!
It may have been just a night or two when you’ve slipped into bed past your usual bedtime.
Perhaps you stayed at a party longer than you planned, binge-watched The Crown, or couldn’t stop turning the pages of that new suspense novel everyone is raving about.
But now you’re stuck with a sleep deficit that’s making you feel sluggish, like you’re trying to walk through thick mud, and your brain feels fuzzy. What can you do to make up for that lost slumber time? We asked a few top health and sleep experts for their best sleep advice and found their opinions were mixed about whether you can actually “catch up” on sleep at all.
What our experts had to say about catching up on lost sleep…
Yes, you can make up for sleep deficit—somewhat
“The general consensus is that you can somewhat pay off sleep debt within a short time frame (48 hours or so), but long term, it is deleterious to your health,” says Ellen Wermter, a family nurse practitioner with Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Medicine. “Individuals have genetic differences in how well they tolerate sleep loss, and those who are most affected are going to need longer recovery times. In general, women do not rebound from sleep loss as readily as men do. It’s genetic.”
Is sleep shortage really so bad? “Cognitive performance is probably the most obvious deficit from lost sleep,” she says, “but it also greatly impacts the endocrine system and metabolism.”
In fact, short sleep duration affects your ability to use glucose and can give you blood sugar levels similar to those of someone with diabetes. You have more stress hormones and inflammatory markers that occur with the activation of your autonomic nervous system – a system that’s great in an emergency, but not good when activated for longer periods. Those stress hormones cause hyper-arousal, which can cause lighter sleep and perpetuate a sleep-deprivation cycle.
“If you need to ‘pay-off,’ a very recent debt, naps are great alternative,” Wermter recommends.
Sleep deficits can’t be erased
Can you just catch up by sleeping in? “No way,” says Nicole Porter, a Wisconsin-based, bio-psychologist and fatigue expert.
“The majority of us (more than half) exhibit independent signs of sleep deprivation already,” she says. “Twenty-five percent have serious fatigue. And it’s affecting our work. Sleeping in on Sunday, trying to make up for burning the candle at both ends is exactly how we end up with sleep deprivation and chronic fatigue.”
She points out that sleep deprivation is such a rampant problem that the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) called insufficient sleep a public health concern last year. It found that a third of Americans are not getting enough sleep and many more suffer from insomnia. New research from the National Safety Council finds 76% of us say we often feel tired at work and 43% are too tired to function.
These statistics are confirmed by survey from Legal & General that found that 42% of Americans said ‘lack of sleep’ was our biggest health concern with another 34% worry about ongoing general fatigue. These rates mean fatigue can formally be defined as an epidemic.
Porter is also concerned about the impact of this chronic fatigue on health: “It leads to a host of health problems, such as hypertension, obesity, ulcers, cognitive difficulties, and immune deficiencies that leave us open to infection, disease and cancer. It also causes anxiety and depression.”
Sleep deprivation effects can occur quickly and they are surprisingly similar to what booze does to your body. New research indicates 17-19 hours without sleep is the equivalent (or worse) than having a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) level of 0.05%. After a few more hours without sleep, and performance reached levels equivalent to a BAC of 0.1 percent.
“Think about that,” she says. “If you sleep 8 hours out of 24, you should be awake for 16 hours. At 17 to 19 hours awake, you exhibit signs of sleep deprivation. That’s one to three hours after bedtime! It’s like you’ve had a few beers. You get a DUI at .08, so pretty quickly you’d be basically driving drunk.”
When it comes to tackling a deficit, it’s back to the basics – good sleep hygiene, a healthy diet, managing stress, and a balance of exercise and relaxation. They’re the only ways to stay energized. There are many simple, self-healing techniques that you can begin using right now that will improve your energy levels significantly.
Porter, also the founder of the Prairie Sky Sanctuary, suggests finding some solutions in Eastern medicine. They might include: practicing mindfulness, detoxing, following an organic diet, nature immersion, forest bathing and meditation.
There’s no turning back the clock to catch up on sleep
“The problem with a sleep deficit is you can’t just catch up on sleep, or make it up any other time,” says Jamie Logie, a certified health and wellness specialist, nutritionist, personal trainer and author, Taking Back Your Health. “Once you’ve neglected it for that night, you have to deal with it. It can lead to increased stress hormone levels, biological clock issues, and can even affect your body’s ability to handle sugar by making you more insulin resistant.”
He warns that when we don’t sleep, it puts stress on the body. “Our body doesn’t know exactly why we’re staying up,” he explains. “All it knows is something traumatic must be happening in order to prevent us from resting and recovering. This keeps those stress hormones elevated and over time this chronic sleep deprivation and stress can lead to a lot of harmful conditions in the body.
The solution for sleep deprivation is straightforward. “You’ll just need to start creating a proper sleep pattern and follow it,” Logie says. “That starts with having a wind-down routine as this is the best way to get in a rhythm and it allows your body to know sleep is coming.”
A quick primer on sleep hygiene
When you’re overcoming a sleep deficit, these are some of basic principles for creating good slumber conditions:
- Keep your room cool—body temperature naturally lowers when we sleep. Starting the night in a cooler state will help you get you to sleep quicker and promote deeper sleep. “A warm room may make you groggy and put you to sleep, but your body has to waste a lot of energy regulating its temperature,” says Logie. Your room should be cooler than other rooms in the house.
- Go dark—darkness helps to stimulate melatonin and this is important for deep restful sleep. Keep your bed room as dark as possible by using blackout curtains or wearing an eye mask.
- Avoid electronics at least 1-2 hours before bed—while darkness stimulates melatonin production, blue light from electronics can prevent it from being released. This will cause issues with getting to sleep and staying asleep. Try to cut out the bright blue light from phones, tablets and TVs for at least that 1 or 2 hours before bed to allow your body to get to its natural state.
- Skip caffeine and alcohol—Alcohol may put you to sleep, but it’s bad for deep restorative sleep. While we know caffeine can keep you up, many people don’t understand that it hangs around in the bloodstream much longer than the two or more hours where you feel the noticeable effects. It can linger for 3 to 7 hours. Experiment to find what’s the best cut-off time of day to end caffeine consumption– 2 pm is a good rule of thumb though.