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What happens when you don’t get enough sleep?

It can be tempting to skimp on sleep, especially if the evenings are your only chance for downtime. But what happens to your body when you don’t get enough sleep? Paul Zolty, M.D., a Piedmont sleep medicine physician, shares why sleep is crucial for good health, what happens in the body when you sleep and signs you’re not getting enough sleep each night.

Why sleep is crucial for good health

“Sleep is as important as healthy food and exercise,” Dr. Zolty says. “Though we can all differ in how much sleep we need - the average is seven to nine hours per night - getting too little sleep affects you in the short-term and the long-term from a physical, psychological and social perspective.”

What happens in the body when you sleep

Every system in the body has a circadian rhythm, Dr. Zolty says. Your body relies on a regular sleep-wake cycle to function properly. Here are a few examples of how the body heals and repairs itself during sleep:

  • Your brain. “When you sleep, your brain prunes daytime memories to get rid of those that aren’t useful and reinforce those that are,” he says. “Your brain also removes toxins and restores itself.”

  • Your muscles. When you sleep, your muscles get a chance to rest and your energy stores are replenished.

  • Your hormones. “During sleep, your body secretes growth hormones and decreases the stress hormone cortisol,” Dr. Zolty says. Sleep also helps balance your leptin (satiety hormone) and ghrelin (hunger hormone) levels. If you get too little sleep, you may find yourself hungrier than usual the next day, which, over time, can lead to weight gain.

  • Your blood sugar, cholesterol and metabolism. “Sleep also affects your blood glucose, cholesterol levels and metabolism,” he says.

Signs you’re not getting enough sleep

Here are some signs you’re not getting enough quality sleep, according to Dr. Zolty:

  • Irritability

  • Unintentionally dozing off, particularly if it puts your safety at risk

  • Reduced performance at school or work

  • Poor judgment

  • Bad mood

  • Difficulty concentrating

  • Decreased libido

  • Relationship issues 

In the long term, lack of sleep can increase inflammation in your body, reduce your immune system function and increase your risk of death.

The good news is “many short-term cognitive deficiencies can be reversed with catch-up sleep,” Dr. Zolty says. So, if you haven’t been getting enough sleep each night, make it a priority to catch up as soon as possible. And do your best to address the underlying cause, so short-term sleep deprivation doesn’t become chronic, he adds.

If you consistently have trouble getting enough sleep, talk to your primary care provider for assistance.

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