3 (More) Reasons Why Sleep Deprivation Is Hurting Your Body


Look, you probably already know that you need to be sleeping more. And if you didn’t, science would like a word: New studies come out all the time suggesting that chronic sleep deprivation and sleep irregularity lead to all kinds of health problems.

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We pulled together some of the most recent studies on how poor sleep habits affect you down the line. And we’ve got to warn you—the results can be pretty terrifying. But don’t panic: Even with a busy schedule, getting enough shut-eye is one of the easiest health changes to make. You’re probably already desperate to do it.

1. Sleep Deprivation Cramps Your Social Skills

Ever felt like after a bad night’s sleep, everybody is especially hard on you? Those bad days might be real, according to a new study—not because you’re actually getting bullied, but because your sleep-deprived brain is incorrectly reading people’s faces.

In a new study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, a team of researchers presented 18 young adults with photos of 70 facial expressions that ranged from friendly to threatening. First, the participants saw the photos after they’d gotten a healthy night of sleep; next, they pulled an all-nighter and looked at the same photos again.

Results from brain scans showed that sleep-deprived brains had trouble deciphering between threatening and friendly faces. Heart rates were also thrown off in sleep-deprived teens, according to the study. 

Rapid-eye movement (REM) sleep is especially important because it helps reduce stress levels and eliminate painful memories, according to Matthew Walker, Ph.D., a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Berkeley and the study’s senior author.

“We recorded the electrical brain activity of the participants when they got a full night of sleep and found that their quality of REM or dream sleep correlated with their ability to accurately read facial expressions,” Walker says.

“Recognizing the emotional expressions of someone else changes everything about whether or not you decide to interact with them, and in return, whether they interact with you,” says Walker. “Should you lose the ability to read and decode facial emotions, you are placed at a profound social and psychological disadvantage, be it in the workplace, recreationally, or with friends and family.”

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2. You’re Upping Your Cancer Risk

A recent study has suggested that disruptions to your sleep cycle—getting in late, leaving early, or at its most extreme, staying up all night and then crashing during the day—can lead to serious consequences for your health.

A research team in the Netherlands found that breast cancer-prone mice whose sleeping hours were changed every night for a year developed tumors 8 weeks earlier than regular-sleeping control mice with the same risk factors. That may not seem substantial, but given mice’s relatively short life-cycle it’s a significant change.

This confirms the results of previous studies which have shown that people who work in shifts have a higher risk for developing cancer. Scientists have been unsure until now exactly what factor causes this correlation. Shift workers tend to have lower incomes and more stressful lives, as well as getting less sunlight exposure.

But the new study, which isolates sleep disruption, suggests that a large part of this may be bad sleep habits.

Translating the results for human health isn’t perfectly straight-forward, but you can definitely put the results in the reasons to sleep more arsenal you’ve been building up with recent science.  

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3. You Could Get Memory Loss, and More

If you’ve ever thought that sleep can wait until after you’ve retired, we have some bad news—the sleep you’re not getting now will still be affecting you then. New research from the University of California at San Francisco suggests that disrupted sleep may lead to the development of Alzheimer’s much later in life.

When you don’t get enough sleep, your body produces a sticky protein known as beta-amyloid. This chemical “gunk” starts to clog your brain, which in turn disrupts your sleep in the following nights. So, disrupted sleep leads to more disrupted sleep—which leads to memory loss.

Over five years, the study followed 6,000 people. Those who slept poorly developed memory problems that were seemingly mild. However, those same problems are associated with Alzheimer’s disease, which appears later in life.

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