How Sleep Affects Your Body

Our in-depth look at what effects your sleep

Sleep deprivation occurs when the quantity OR quality of your sleep is inadequate. How much you sleep, AND how well you sleep is critical to your health and wellbeing.

Sleep deprivation is common place. You may find that when you are worrying about an exam, if you are ill, caring for your children or if you have something on your mind you are most affected or as is often the case the lack of comfort or support may be the root cause of the problem. Not being able to sleep at night can make you feel tired, drained, irritable and unable to function inside and out.

There are direct effects of sleep deprivation that we can clearly notice affecting our everyday lives but it is the silent effects that over a period of time, that lead to more serious effects on our bodies that we need to be aware of.

Sleep deprivation will affect your body in many different ways.

Skeletal SystemYour skeletal system is all of the bones in the body and the tissues such as tendons, ligaments and cartilage that connect them. While sleeping your mattresses should provide an environment in which the skeletal system is fully supported, whilst maintaining correct postural alignment to allow the muscular-skeletal system to relax. Equally, this needs to be achieved with comfort, without exerting undue pressure on the soft surface tissue, bony prominences (shoulders, hips, knees, and ankles) or muscles of the sleeper. Shear forces also play a part in causing discomfort, particularly amongst the elderly. This is a stretching of the surface and deep tissue, often the cause of pressure sores in hospitals and nursing homes.

Postural alignmentThe spine, in particular, greatly benefits from adequate sleep. The spine works hard all day supporting the body and its functions. A period of rest is essential to maintain this activity. Your cervical spine includes seven vertebrae, supports your head, and has a C-shaped curve. Your thoracic spine includes 12 vertebrae, supports your upper body and has a reverse C-shaped curve. Your lower back, or lumbar spine, is your back’s foundation; it includes five vertebrae, and also has a C-shaped curve. If you don’t maintain these curves, you increase the stress on the bones and muscles of your back and that can lead to chronic back pain. Mechanical back pain is the name given to any type of back pain, which is caused by putting abnormal stress and strain on the muscles which support the vertebral column affecting most people at some stage in their lives and postural changes are common. One such example is the rotation of the pelvis causing one leg to appear short, one shoulder to drop, and the head to tilt. Because of the shorter limb, weight is transferred to this leg, often resulting in sciatic pain in one of the limbs. This condition can be extremely debilitating, and a problem for back pain specialists to stabilise if the patient sleeps on an incorrectmattress. A mattress which may be sagging across the centre third can cause the thoracic curve to over extend, this can also put extra strain on the area as well as on the neck or the cervical section of the spine resulting in neck pain or stiffness. Similarly a mattress which is lacking support in your hip region can in fact cause the spine to straighten in effect for back sleepers and therefore cause problems in lumber curve region. Of course for a side sleeper this will result in a similar effect.

Another indication of poor sleep posture is the need to excessively stretch in the morning or waking up physically tired this can often occur due to the muscles down your spine working at night in an effort to get your spine into the correct posture.

All bodily functions are controlled and coordinated by the brain and nervous system through the spine. The spine is like a wiring conduit that protects, connects, and delivers nervous system impulses to and from all bodily tissues and organs. When your spine is healthy, the vertebrae are properly aligned and your nervous system communication is optimized. The right sleeping surface is of paramount importance to achieve this.

Did you know? The worse sleeping position for healthy spinal alignment is the stomach and should be avoided. Often this is a sign that the sleeping surface is too hard and the extra padding many of us have then compensates for this. Sleeping face down can exaggerate the arch at the base of your spine and cause strain.

Pressure pointsIf you’re sleeping on a firm mattress, this is not taking account for pressure affecting conditions such as arthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, insomnia, bursitis, spondilosis, etc. As pressure points (shoulders, hips, knees, and ankles) restrict blood flow, your mind senses this discomfort and changes position. As a result poor circulation develops, the body’s blood supply cannot get to the areas of the body that it needs to. If the blood is not flowing properly to your legs, feet, arms and hands, you are going to start experiencing symptoms in these areas such as pain or tingling in one or more of the bodies four limbs, cramps while you sleep and numbness or loss of feeling in these areas. Poor circulation can be a sign of more serious health issues such as clots and symptoms should be brought to the attention of a medical professional. The average person actually changes position up to 80 times each night, however a mattress which reduces pressure points will significantly reduce this.

A good qualitymattresswill ensure that your spine remains in the correct position while you sleep. If your mattress is failing to do so, it is putting unnecessary strain on your vertebrae resulting in back pain and causing additional stress on the bodies pressure points triggering potential damage as well as activating your brain to tell your body to change position whilst sleeping to correct this problem adding to your sleep debt thus often increasing partner disturbance in the bed casued by this excessive tossing and turning.

Did you know?There are approximately three million beds and mattresses sold annually in the UK. 30% of beds and mattresses purchased are for relief from a back problem, and 35% of purchases result in a disappointment for at least one partner or both.

The BrainThe brain will not function well when sleep deprived. Disturbed sleep patterns can impair memory, shrink the brain and raise stress levels. Adequate sleep is required so that it may continue to function optimally. Some experts believe sleep gives neurons used while we are awake a chance to shut down and repair themselves. Without sleep, neurons may become so depleted in energy or so polluted with by products of normal cellular activities that they begin to malfunction, visibly effecting a person’s behaviour and ability to retrieve information. Sleep also gives the brain a chance to exercise important neuronal connections that might otherwise deteriorate from lack of activity.

Did you know?Feeling tired can feel normal after a short time. Those deliberately deprived of sleep for research initially noticed greatly the effects on their alertness, mood and physical performance, but the awareness dropped off after the first few days.

The HeartThe heart is the most important part of your body, it pumps blood throughout, beating approximately 72 times per minute.

Short-term sleep deprivation is known to raise blood pressure and stress hormones, lower glucose tolerance and even lead to irregular heartbeats. Chronic sleep deprivation promotes weight gain and diabetes. It also affects the functioning of the lining inside the blood vessels and can cause low-grade inflammation. All of these factors are linked to heart disease.

A study carried out by Harvard University over a 10 year period, tracked the sleep habits and health of more than 70,000 women between the ages of 45 and 65 that had no previous history of heart disease. In the end, 934 of these women suffered from coronary heart disease and 271 died from it.Factors like age, weight and whether they smoked were accounted for, they then looked at the subjects’ sleep patterns. Five percent of the women slept less than five hours per night. Those women were nearly 40 percent more likely to suffer from heart disease than women who slept an average of eight hours.

The Immune SystemInside your body there is an amazing protection mechanism called the immune system. It is designed to defend you against millions of bacteria, microbes, viruses, toxins and parasites that would love to invade your body. Sleep helps us thrive by contributing to a healthy immune system. It allows the body time to rejuvenate ensuring a healthy white blood cell count within the body.

Sleep deprivation suppresses immune system function. Sleep loss not only plays a role in whether we come down with a cold or flu, it also influences how we fight illnesses once we come down with them. Our body needs sleep to build the immune system up to allow ensure top performance as you take on our daily schedules and the strength to help the body recover from serious illness.

Mental HealthMental health refers to our cognitive and emotional wellbeing. It incorporates how we think, feel, behave and adapted to a range of demands we encounter in our lives. You probably know firsthand that sleep affects mood. After a sleepless night, you may be more irritable, short-tempered, and vulnerable to stress. Once you sleep well, your mood often returns to normal and you feel more capable to take on the day ahead. Over time, a lack of sleep could hurt your body’s ability to regulate stress hormones, leading to high blood pressure.

Mental ill health, if somebody has it, can also mean an absence of a mental disorder. There are many types of mental health problems, some of which are common, such as depression and anxiety disorders, and some not so common, such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.The relationship between sleep and depressive illness is complex. Depression may cause sleep problems and sleep problems may cause or contribute to depressive disorders. For some people, symptoms of depression occur before the onset of a sleep problem and for others they develop as a side effect of the illness.

Many children and adolescents with depression suffer from sleep problems such as insomnia or hypersomnia (excessive sleepiness) or both. According to recent research, children with depression who suffer from both insomnia and hypersomnia are more likely to have severe and longer-lasting depression. They are also more likely to suffer from weight loss, impaired movement, and anhedonia. People with anhedonia have an incredibly flat mood. They can’t react properly or feel anything. There is no variation of mood, making it difficult to take things forward.

Did you know?Some studies suggest women need up to an hour’s extra sleep a night compared to men and not getting it may be one reason women are much more susceptible to depression.

The SkinThe benefits of good quality sleep on your skin are clear to see. You may have noticed that after a good night’s sleep, you actually look younger and your skin has less pronounced lines and wrinkles. The term “Beauty Sleep” is evident here. Many of the body’s cells show increased production and reduced breakdown of proteins during deep sleep. Since proteins are the building blocks needed for cell growth and for repair of damage from factors like stress and ultraviolet rays, a good night sleep can provide this time for repair.

Sleep relaxes the facial muscles and this helps to smooth wrinkles and lines on your face. When we are sleeping, the daily effects of gravity on our skin is impaired, it’s not pulling down when you’re lying down. This too helps in reducing the gravitational stress on your facial skin and aids in the reduction of lines and wrinkles. Similarly, the lack of facial expressions during the night allows the dermal layers of your skin to rejuvenate.

An indirect example would be the contribution to Acne. Lack of sleep lowers the immune system and all functions of the body, this in turn has a knock on effect on your body’s natural balance leaving it more susceptible to inflammations, referred to as sleep acne.

WeightSleep and weight gain are closely related, and weight gain is one of the common effects of lack of sleep. [Weighing Scales Isolated] Obesity and sleep apnea occur together frequently, as do lack of sleep, depression and weight gain.

One sleep expert made the comment, “We sleep what we eat”, because nutritional inputs, good or bad, can have a major impact on our sleeping habits and how we manage our optimum weight.

People following a healthy, balanced diet with the goal to lose weight should take a look at their sleep habits. Research shows that adequate sleep can help control weight. The balance between our food intake and energy expenditure is driven in large part by leptin, a “satiety hormone” released by fat cells. Sleep deprivation increases hunger promoting hormones and decreases satiety hormones. This results in a person feeling hungrier after a poor sleep but it takes more food to make them feel full. This can lead to people often eating more calories than they can burn within the extra waking hours.It is important to maintain a balanced diet and good sleep pattern to help control these effects and promote a healthy lifestyle.

What the experts say;“Perhaps the most sensational developments in the new wave of sleep research are findings that indicate that there is a strong and direct link between lack of sleep and the current epidemic of obesity in Western nations, particularly the United States. Researchers have also found that people who sleep less than seven hours per night are more likely to be overweight or obese. It is thought that the lack of sleep impacts the balance of hormones in the body that affect appetite. The normal production of the hormones ghrelin and leptin, important for the regulation of appetite, has been found to be disrupted by lack of sleep”.

Shahrad Taheri, Ling Lin, Diane Austin, Terry Young, Emmanuel Mignot , Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Stanford University USA, Department of Population Health Sciences, University of Wisconsin, USADiabetesSleep not only rest’s your body and refreshes your mind, but a good night’s sleep is vital to good diabetes health. Diabetes is a common life-long health condition. With this condition, the amount of glucose in your blood is too high because the body cannot use it properly. This is because your pancreas does not produce any insulin, or not enough, to help glucose enter your body’s cells, or the insulin that is produced does not work properly.

A study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that women who slept only five hours a night were 2 ½ times more likely to have diabetes as those who slept seven or eight hours.One explanation for this link is that sleep-deprivation increases insulin resistance, which contributes to diabetes. Another study found that, when healthy young men slept only 4 hours a night for 6 nights in a row, their insulin and blood sugar levels mimicked those seen in people who were developing diabetes. If you already have diabetes, a pattern of sleep-deprivation only further contributes to a flux in blood sugars.

Sleep DisordersInsomniaWhen a person suffers from sleep deprivation for no obvious reason this can be describe as insomnia. Insomnia may be chronic or acute and is often times related to an underlying cause such as a medical or psychiatric condition.

Acute insomnia is brought on by situations such as stress at work, family pressure, environmental factors such as noise and temperature, and a change of schedule or traumatic event in one’s life. This form will last from days to weeks.

Chronic insomnia is the more serious of the two and is mostly associated with depression, pain related illnesses such as cancer, stress or anxiety and will last for longer periods.When a person is suffering from chronic insomnia it is important to seek professional medical advice, as medication’s can be used to treat the condition.

Did you know?The prevalence of insomnia is also higher among older adults. According to a National Sleep Fountain 2003 Sleep in America poll, 44% of older persons experience one or more of the night time symptoms of insomnia at least a few nights per week or more.Sleep ApneaSleep Apnea is a common disorder where the sufferer has one or more pauses in breathing during sleep. Breathing pauses can last from a few seconds to minutes in extreme cases.

They often occur 5 to 30 times or more an hour, normal breathing then starts again, sometimes with a loud snort or choking sound. You often move out of deep sleep and into light sleep when your breathing pauses or becomes shallow. This will result in poor sleep quality sleep. Sleep Apnea is one of the leading causes of excessive daytime sleepiness.

This disorder most commonly affects males between 30 and 50, but people who smoke, drink alcohol or are obese are at a much higher risk. The condition often becomes worse with age.These stoppages of breathing can occur repeatedly, causing multiple sleep disruptions throughout the night and result in excessive daytime sleepiness and impaired daytime function. Your work performance and reliability will be affected, there may be a server reduction in the short term memory and in serious cases there is a possibility of early death. Untreated sleep Apnea is a serious contributor in the development of cardio vascular problems, respiratory illnesses and indeed the onset of diabetes. It is a serious disorder but can be managed with medical treatment.Sleep Walking and Night TerrorsSleep terrors and sleepwalking are described as arousals from deep non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep with no or poor mental recollection of the fullness of their surroundings and is totally focussed in their concern or activity.

Sleepwalking is a sleep disorder also called somnambulism. It involves rising from your bed and walking around, even though you are still asleep. When a person is sleep walking they can perform routine daytime tasks, but in a crude manner or done in the wrong place. To an onlooker, a sleep walker may look awake, but on closer inspection, their actions can suggest otherwise.

Night Terrors should not be confused with nightmares. It involves a sudden episode of intense terror during sleep. The episodes usually occur within the first third of the night. Partial or total amnesia occurs for the events during the episode. This is also known as parasomnia disorder.NightmaresA person having a nightmare is abruptly awakened from Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep and is able to describe detailed dream content. Generally the person will have difficulty returning to sleep. Nightmares can be caused by many factors including illness, anxiety, stress or negative reactions to a medication.Restless Legs SyndomeRLS is a disorder that causes a strong urge to move your legs. It often occurs with uncomfortable sensations and moving your legs relieves the urge and unpleasant feelings.

People who have RLS describe these sensations as creeping, crawling, pulling, itching, tingling, burning, aching, or electric shocks. Sometimes, these feelings also occur in the arms.The sensations are usually worse at rest, especially when lying in bed. It can make it hard to fall asleep and stay asleep. It may make you feel tired and sleepy during the day. As a result it can be hard to learn, work, and do other daily activities.

As we age this condition becomes more common, difficulties in movement can affect your ability to move the legs and increase the discomfort for the sufferers.

NarcelepsyNarcolepsy is a chronic sleep disorder. Its most common manifestation is extreme daytime sleepiness and sleep attacks. It affects the central nervous system and it is characterised by the brain’s inability to control sleep-wake cycles. At various times throughout the day, people with narcolepsy experience irresistible and sudden episodes of sleep, which can last from a few seconds to several minutes.

Although the name may suggest that people with narcolepsy spend a larger portion of their time sleeping during a 24 hour period than normal sleepers, this is in fact untrue. Most people who suffer from this condition experience poor quality sleep that involves frequent awakenings during sleep and can also suffer from other sleep disorders.

Researchers have not been able to clinically state causes of the disorder but believe it is the end result of a number of genetic abnormalities that affect specific biological factors in the brain, coupled with an environmental trigger such as a virus.A suffer from this disorder may experience poor attention span, headaches, obesity, depression and become accident prone due to the lack of sleep.Once narcolepsy is diagnosed by medical professional, stimulants, antidepressants, or other drugs can help control the symptoms and prevent the embarrassing and dangerous effects of falling asleep at inappropriate times. Naps at certain times of the day also may reduce the excessive daytime sleepiness.

Advanced sleep phase syndromeOlder people tend to become sleepier in the early evening and wake earlier in the morning compared to younger adults. This pattern is called advanced sleep phase syndrome. The sleep rhythm is shifted forward so that 7 or 8 hours of sleep are still obtained but the individuals will wake up extremely early because they have gone to sleep quite early. It occurs more often in the elderly and can be hereditary.

In Short: Your body needs sleep – without it you run the risk of putting yourself at serious risk of illness, especially as deprivation continues for long periods

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Posts from the Harvey Norman blog team.

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