The most common sleep disorder among Americans, insomnia affects more than 40 million people in the United States each year. Women are more likely than men to suffer from insomnia, and older adults are also more likely to have sleeping problems.
Insomnia is defined by three different problems: trouble falling asleep, trouble staying asleep, and trouble returning to sleep if woken up. People with insomnia may have one, two or all three of these difficulties, which may fluctuate back and forth.
Short Term Side Effects of Insomnia
Losing even just one night of sleep can affect your physical, mental and emotional health. Chronic insomnia has even more negative side effects in the short term and long term.
First, let’s take a look at how insomnia can affect you almost immediately:
Fatigue. Missing sleep makes you tired. This can come across as sleepiness during the day, or general lack of energy that affects your body and your brain.
Appearance. When you don’t sleep well, your appearance suffers. Dark circles under the eyes, dull skin that lacks luster, and fine lines begin appearing. Lack of sleep causes a release of more cortisol, the body’s stress response hormone. Cortisol can break down collagen, which is the elastic part of the skin that helps to keep it looking smooth and young. Tissue repair happens during sleep, so if you are losing sleep your looks are likely to begin aging more quickly.
Accidents. Whether in the workplace, driving a car, or simply cutting vegetables at home, accidents are much more likely to happen when a person is sleep deprived. Coordination and reactions times suffer when you are lacking in sleep.
Reduced Libido. Lack of energy, increased tension, and general sleepiness all can result in lowered sex drive in both men and women who are sleep deprived.
Lowered Brain Function. Difficult with problem solving, concentration, reasoning, attention and alertness. Learning becomes a struggle, likely related to the fact that the memory function is impaired with sleep deprivation. When you don’t sleep well, you can’t think well.
Long Term Effects of Insomnia
Less immediate, these long term side effects of insomnia can certainly limit your quality of life as well as becoming hazardous to your health:
Weight Gain. People who don’t sleep well are at a much higher risk of gaining weight and becoming obese. Weight gain brings with it a variety of long term health problems such as diabetes, heart problems, sleep apnea and more.
Health Problems. Intertwined with weight gain is the health problems that can result from lack of restorative sleep Irreversible damage to the heart is one of the most troublesome health problems that can be a result of chronic insomnia. High blood pressure, heart disease, heart attack, irregular heartbeat, heart failure, and even stroke can be serious side effects of insomnia. Studies have shown that people who don’t’ sleep enough over a long period of time may double their risk of death related to cardiovascular disease.
Some other health conditions associated with increased risk due to insomnia:
- Asthma attacks
- Sensitivity to pain
- Weakened immune system
Problems with Education and/or Career. Learning difficulties can create a lifetime of setbacks for people who would otherwise be competitive and attentive in their jobs or educational lives. Insomnia creates a distinct disadvantage when trying to get a degree, move up in a company, or advance your career in some way. Losing out on opportunities due to sleep deprivation can create job loss, financial struggles and many other circumstances that minimize the quality of life.
Family Issues. Exhaustion often leads to emotional unsteadiness, which can wreak havoc on the finely tuned inner workings of a family unit. Sleep deprived people are often moody and difficult to get along with, lacking in patience and empathy, as well as unable to remain focused on the needs of the family.
Decreased Life Expectancy. Chronic insomnia has been estimated to increase the risk of death by more than 50%. Whether due to increased potential for accidents or the negative consequences to health, lack of sleep may actually be responsible for killing you much sooner.
Increased Risk of Alcohol or Drug Abuse. Although insomnia is no longer regularly treated with prescription medications, many people who struggle to sleep will find themselves with a tendency to “self-medicate”. People with insomnia may regularly use alcohol to fall asleep at night (and can’t fall asleep without it) or use chemicals to stay awake during the day. These behaviors can easily become habits that lead to substance dependency which is extremely hard to break.
Psychological Effects of Insomnia
Lack of sleep over long periods of time can increase the risk that you have for these and mental health problems:
Anxiety. People who aren’t sleeping often become stressed. Because their cognitive function is impaired, insomniacs often don’t have the mental capacity to think clearly about situations and they therefore react with frustration and anxiety. Additional amounts of cortisol are released into the body when sleep is lacking, causing additional stress symptoms such as increased heart rate and a rush of adrenaline. These responses deter the person’s ability to go to sleep at night as the cycle continues.
Depression. Feelings of sadness, worthlessness, hopelessness and helplessness are often linked to depression. As normal sleep restores the body and the brain, the lack of sleep can trigger mood disturbances that can become serious and even debilitating.
Impaired Judgment. Sort of like making decisions while a person is slightly drunk, people who are suffering from sleep loss have an impaired ability to make wise decisions. This can affect relationships, careers and almost all aspects of life. Impaired judgment can lead to unusual behaviors such as aggressiveness or impulsive actions that are uncharacteristic. For instance, Impulsive spending or gambling can lead to devastating financial problems, while aggressiveness can result in serious relationship issues. Restoring appropriate levels of healthy sleep makes a huge difference in a person’s ability to make smart decisions.
What to Do About Insomnia?
If you are experiencing insomnia side effects, you do have options. Making some simple lifestyle changes may be helpful. Talking to a counselor may help if anxiety is keeping you from sleeping. Contact your physician about your sleeping problems to see if a sleep study will help you to determine the cause of your insomnia. Once you understand the cause, you are better equipped to find a way to help you get back to sleep and restore your life to normal once again.