Aging column: Lack of sleep affects health |

Aging column: Lack of sleep affects health

While the importance of a good night sleep is generally understood, many people are unaware of the health risks associated with lack of sleep.

It may seem undoubtedly apparent that sleep is beneficial and that getting a good night’s sleep often makes us feel alert and energized. Even without fully understanding what sleep does for us, we know that going without sleep for too long may cause us to have trouble making decisions, solving problems, controlling emotions, coping with changes, and even our sex life.

According to some of the most leading sleep specialists at the University of Chicago, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, and Western Psychiatric Institute, many parts of the body are negatively affected by inadequate sleep: the heart, lungs, eyesight, appetite, and metabolism are just a few of many.

Sleep affects the heart

Research indicates that for those who get less than six hours of sleep per night may be twice as likely to have a stroke or heart attack as people who slept six to eight hours per night.

While the dots are not clearly connected, researchers believe that while sleeping our blood pressure, hormone and insulin levels are regulated. When people are sleep deprived, these regulated processes are thrown out of control. Often, when these levels are out of balance, the development of arterial blockages and stiffer arterial walls occur — both are leading causes of higher blood pressure and heart disease.

Lack of sleep and weight

Weight gain and its association with sleep deprivation is a global concern. Establishing a link between the two will hopefully increase overall health and reduce the hardships of obesity.

Two hormones that effect weight are ghrelin and leptin. Ghrelin is produced within our gastrointestinal tracts and sends hunger signals to our brain. When our stomachs are empty, ghrelin is secreted. The leptin hormone helps to tell you that you are full. Leptin is secreted primarily in fat cells, as well as the stomach, heart, placenta and skeletal muscle.

According to a study at The New York Obesity Nutrition Research Center, after just two consecutive nights of 4-hours of sleep, test subjects had a 28 percent higher ghrelin (hunger) hormone level and 18 percent lower leptin (satiety) hormone level in their blood compared with subjects who had sept 10 hours a night.

A secondary association between sleep and weight is energy level. When we are tired, we are less likely to have the energy to go to the gym, go for a jog, or cook a healthy dinner. Tired bodies are just plain hungrier and often crave high calorie foods — thanks to leptin.


According to the New England Journal of Medicine, Stanford Sleep Medicine Center, Carnegie Mellon University and others, people who get less than seven hours of sleep are about three times more likely to catch a cold, compared to people who get eight hours or more.

A good night’s sleep is an extremely important part of maintaining and even increasing the immune system. Well-rested people have proven to be better prepared to fight of infections and even common colds.

As we sleep, our body repairs itself. Proteins in our body called cytokines are released by our immune system to help fight disease and inflammation. When our body has an infection, is under duress, or is encountering inflammation, increased productions of certain cytokines are need. During periods of sleep deprivation, the production of this protein and other infection-fighting antibodies are dramatically decreased.

Much like when we are sick, when our body is sleep deprived, the immune system becomes hyperactive and starts producing white blood cells. (White blood cells are one of the major cell types of the immune system involved in protecting the body from infections.) Typically, elevated levels of white blood cells are a sign of disease, and therefore the elevated production of these cells caused by sleep deprivation can have adverse effects.

When a foreign virus or bacteria enters your blood, the white blood cells attempt to destroy the invading element before it can cause disease. However, the elevated levels of white blood cells also have the opposite reaction. The elevated levels of white blood caused from sleep deprivation may influence the development of coronary heart disease through the increase of plaque buildup in the inner lining of arteries.

Eyes need sleep

Not getting enough sleep can impair the health of even your eyes. Visually obvious signs of sleep deprived people often include: red eyes, swollen eyes, circles under the eyes, and sometimes hanging eyelids.

However, the effects on the eye run deeper that what can be seen in our face.

Conditions such as sleep apnea, high blood pressure and diabetes have a great effect on the eyes — all of which can be attributed to sleep deprivation and impair circulation of blood to the optic nerve. These conditions can predispose people to NAION (Non-Anterior Ischemic Optic Neuropathy).

According to the Journal of the American Medical Association ( JAMA), there is a correlation between sleep and eye impairment. Articles published in JAMA indicate that many people with NAION notice their symptoms in the morning, and approximately 75 percent of people with NAION discover visual loss upon first awakening or when they first utilize their vision after sleeping.

Sleep is important to our entire body. If you are not getting enough sleep, perhaps it’s time you look into the situation. The effects are deeper than just being tired. Consult your doctor and ask questions. You need to be your best advocate.

Judson Haims is the owner of Visiting Angels Home Care in Garfield/Pitkin County. His contact information is,, 970-328-5526

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