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What are the risks of sleep deprivation?

Dr. Christopher E. Morgan, MD
Sleep Medicine Specialist

The risks of sleep deprivation may include:

  • daytime sleepiness and fatigue
  • decreased work productivity
  • reduced quality of life
  • deficits in learning/memory
  • lack of awareness/poor judgment–you CANNOT judge when you are sleepy
  • increased irritability/mood changes
  • increased inattentiveness and distraction
  • increased motor vehicle accidents and occupational disasters–20 percent of all serious car crashes associated with sleepiness
  • increased risk for obesity
  • increased mortality risk (18 percent with less than six hours sleep)
  • increased risk of diabetes (28 percent with less than six hours sleep)
  • impaired immunity
  • decreased effectiveness of vaccines
  • increased risk of cancer (prostate, breast)
  • increased risk of colon cancer (shift workers)
  • worse pain tolerance
  • increased risk for hypertension, heart attack, stroke 
Dr. Michael Breus, PhD
Psychology Specialist

Accumulated sleep deprivation will cause physical, emotional and mental problems. These can include: decreased coordination, sexual impairment, decreased circulation, lowered metabolism, eventual insulin resistance, weight gain, depression, memory problems, headaches and migraines, greater pain sensitivity, and emotional instability.

Skimping on sleep is exhausting and makes you grumpy. Even worse, it causes your body to secrete extra stress hormones that lead to insulin resistance and weight gain. "People who don't sleep enough at night are also hungrier because they have more ghrelin, a hormone that make you eat more," she says. Aim for 7 to 8 hours of sleep every night. If your partner says you snore, and you don't wake up refreshed, see your doctor. You may have sleep apnea, a breathing disorder during sleep that can boost your diabetes risk.

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Dr. Mehmet Oz, MD
Cardiologist (Heart Specialist)

With some major exceptions, sleep is a lot like sex. It's something you really look forward to, and it makes you feel great when you're done. Most importantly, though, sleep is more like your boss-it's much more agreeable when it goes uninterrupted.

Lack of sleep makes you less mentally aware, more fatigued, causes you to eat more, and puts you at a higher risk of accidents. Plus, being fatigued puts you at greater risk for making choices that age you (when you're tired, it's easier to order the bacon double fat-burger than the grilled salmon).

If you have sleep apnea, even getting eight hours of sleep won't be enough, because the many interruptions to sleep means you're simply not getting enough of the rejuvenating REM sleep and slow-wave sleep you need.

While sleeping pills may seem like a good idea-because they do work in the short-term by shutting off the Leno-watching neurons-they have harmful effects over the long-term because they have addictive qualities.

YOU: The Owner's Manual, Updated and Expanded Edition: An Insider's Guide to the Body that Will Make You Healthier and Younger

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YOU: The Owner's Manual, Updated and Expanded Edition: An Insider's Guide to the Body that Will Make You Healthier and Younger

Between your full-length mirror and high-school biology class, you probably think you know a lot about the human body. While it's true that we live in an age when we're as obsessed with our bodies as...

In two studies, sleep deprivation exaggerated the hormone responses to normal "irritating" stresses. That overreaction probably contributes to aging. Sleep deprivation also reduces task performance in almost all mock and real worksites where tested. Also, the effect on the risk of auto accidents and the decrease in judgment from just two hours of sleep deprivation is similar to that produced by a blood alcohol level of 0.12. This 0.12 level is 50percent higher than the level at which most states consider drivers unfit to drive. Two hours of sleep deprivation can also make you irritable, disagreeable to be around, and less focused mentally.

As mentioned above, sleepy people are at greater risk of accidents (and not just auto accidents). For auto accidents, the greatest risk occurs during periods of maximum sleepiness, such as the late afternoon or after midnight. As your body gets increasingly tired, your "sleep latency window" - the time it takes to go from being bored to dead asleep - decreases from as much as three minutes to just thirty seconds. (In one of our studies on sleep, it was all too easy to find physician test subjects who were naturally sleep-deprived. Maybe you should avoid booking appointments with physicians for the late afternoon.)

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.