What happens to your body when you don't get enough sleep

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  • Many South Africans don't get enough sleep, and it's costing the economy billions.
  • A lack of sleep can lead to deadly chronic illnesses.
  • A night or two's decent sleep will not cancel out your sleep debt.

Some people are night owls, while others are simply too busy to get enough sleep, but burning the candle at both ends eventually catches up with you.

We don't have a straightforward answer for why we need sleep. Researchers and scientists have, however, discovered that the body performs several essential functions while we're sleeping.

It's a fact that South Africans don't get enough sleep, which is costing the economy billions. Furthermore, a lack of sleep is linked to 15 leading causes of death, as reported by Fin24.

A lack of sleep brings a number of short-term and long-term problems, and Dr Harneet Walia, a sleep disorders expert at the Cleveland Clinic, says a minimum of seven hours of sleep is imperative for maintaining your health.

"We put a lot of effort into good nutrition and regular exercise but then shortchange ourselves on sleep." 

In her book, The Science of Sleep, Heather Darwall-Smith explains that you need human growth hormone for muscle repair, which reaches peak levels while you're in a deep sleep.

When you interrupt the stages of deep sleep, you deprive your body of the opportunity to regenerate and repair muscle and other tissues.

Short-term problems

Lack of sleep severely affects your cognitive abilities. 

Several short-term problems include:

  • Lack of alertness and increased risk of motor vehicle accidents. Driving while drowsy is as bad as drunk driving.
  • Excessive sleepiness. Throughout the day, there is a greater chance of experiencing waves of fatigue.
  • General activities. Your tiredness lowers your energy levels and the ability to perform even the most basic tasks.
  • The brain drain. Your ability to function is affected by your struggle to think, process and memorise.

Long-term problems

By not getting enough sleep, you increase your risk of chronic health conditions.

Among the most serious is the possibility of developing diabetes, high blood pressure, heart attack, heart failure, and stroke.

Other potential problems are a compromised immune system, increased risk of depression, lower sex drive and obesity.

Walia adds that lack of sleep could even affect your appearance, with dark circles under the eyes and wrinkles. Lack of sleep increases cortisol levels in your body – and cortisol breaks down collagen, the protein that keeps your skin smooth.

Catching up on sleep

Well done. You managed to get eight hours of sleep a few nights running, but then you slipped back into your old ways. A few nights of sufficient sleep will not make up for the sleep you lost over weeks, months, or even years.

The National Health Service (NHS) advises that to cancel your sleep debt, you will need 10 to 12 hours of sleep every night for a while before settling on between seven and nine hours.

Go to bed when you feel tired and allow yourself to wake up when you wake up – don't set any alarms and try not to be disturbed by your surroundings.

The NHS adds that you shouldn't use caffeine and energy drinks as "short-term pick-me-ups" because they may negatively affect your sleep in the long run.

If you think your sleep problems are a little more complicated, speak to your healthcare professional for advice and possible solutions.

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