We need rest to function to the best of our ability, both cognitively and physically, and health experts stress the importance of getting enough quality shuteye every night.
However, work commitments, social gatherings, sleep disorders, and other health complications can interfere with this. What happens, then, when we don’t get enough sleep?
A new study sheds some light on the effects of sleep deprivation, including the impact of one night of insufficient slumber versus a chronic loss of rest. In this article, we’ll dive into the research behind this study and answer other pressing questions on sleep loss.
What the Research Tells Us
The study was conducted by Soomi Lee, an assistant professor at the University of South Florida’s School of Aging Studies. For the study, Lee analyzed participants’ mental and physical symptoms who experienced at least a single night of sleep loss over an 8-day period, which means they slept an hour and a half less.
Participants with insufficient rest reported symptoms that included anger, nervousness, loneliness, irritability, frustration over losing sleep, upper respiratory issues, body aches, and gastrointestinal issues.
Lee found that the most significant decline in cognitive and physical well-being occurred after the first night of sleep loss, and the symptoms remained at a steady, elevated level after consecutive nights of poor shuteye.
That raises the question of why the participants saw the sharpest increase in symptoms after the initial night of reduced rest. Jeff Kahn, CEO and Co-Founder of Rise Science explains more on this.
“It’s true that symptoms from a night of sleep loss can be felt immediately. The drastic impact of the first night is felt stronger as it's the first, not because they go away or decrease after multiple nights. In actuality, your brain just recalibrates to functioning at a lower level of performance.”
Find Out More: Sleep Deprivation Psychosis and Mental Illnesses
Sleep Loss Symptoms
According to Kahn, less than six hours of shuteye can lead to a delayed reaction time, memory lapses, impatience, and irritability. In addition, physical side effects include drowsiness, less physical strength, and a weakened immune system.
Khan adds that missing a whole night of sleep can lead to the same level of cognitive impairment as consuming more than the legal limit of alcohol. This can be especially dangerous for those driving and could lead to an increase in workplace accidents.
A continuous lack of slumber can also lead to long-term health consequences. Otherwise, healthy individuals could develop high blood pressure, abnormal cholesterol levels, cardiovascular disease, weight gain and obesity, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, and colorectal cancer. Thus, this data further solidifies the need to address sleep issues to prevent serious health and safety risks in short and long terms.
Do Naps Help?
When you don’t get enough shuteye, you may consider taking a midday snooze to catch up on your rest. While naps can be a temporary solution, you shouldn’t regularly rely on them. Instead, Khan stresses that the healthiest thing to do is to focus on getting a full night of sleep.
You also must be mindful of when you nap because if you take one too late in the day, this could affect your ability to fall asleep at night, further perpetuating a poor sleep cycle. Therefore, experts suggest that you avoid napping after 3:00 p.m.
In addition, you should keep naps short, as too much slumber could interfere with your nighttime rest or leave you feeling groggy. A good amount of time for a nap is around 20 minutes.
Get More Info: Power Nap Benefits
Frequently Asked Questions
How much sleep should I get?
The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends healthy adults get between seven and nine hours of rest every night. Some folks may feel well-rested after 7 hours, or others may need closer to eight or nine hours. Your best bet is to find the duration that works best for you and stick to that.
While sleep deprivation is cause for concern, too much slumber may be a sign of an underlying condition. However, there are exceptions, such as people recovering from an illness or catching up on their shuteye. Babies, children, and teens also require more sleep than their adult counterparts.
Learn More: Recommended Sleep Times for Every Age
Can you reverse the effects of chronic sleep deprivation?
Let’s say you spent the last ten years working the overnight shift and have now switched to a 9-5 daytime work schedule. During your time on the overnight crew, you regularly experienced sleep loss.
Is it possible to reverse the effects of chronically poor rest that have gone on for years or even decades at a time? According to Kahn, the jury is still out on this one.
”This is an area of sleep science where more research is needed. Right now, it’s unknown whether or not you can make up for chronic sleep deprivation. What *is* known is that you can correct for acute sleep debt and reverse its impacts.”
We covered earlier that a consistent lack of rest can lead to physical health repercussions, some of which may be more manageable than others. So, while achieving quality sleep is your best defense against these long-term symptoms, you may be able to improve some of them after the fact, such as weight gain and high blood pressure. However, as far as memory and long-term cognitive effects, additional research is required.
Can you lose sleep and still wake up refreshed?
Some folks swear they can get by just as well on six hours of sleep. If they sleep less but still wake up feeling refreshed, can this be considered healthy?
According to Kahn, the initial period after waking up is not the most accurate depiction of how well-rested you are. “Depending on when you wake during the cycle of your circadian rhythm, that ‘refreshed’ or feel-good sensation you might be feeling could be because you’re experiencing the rush of the alertness hormone cortisol that courses through your body in the morning to signal wakefulness. Because your circadian rhythm is independent of your sleep process, you will experience this rush of cortisol whether you met your sleep need or not, and that can feel misleading.”
Because your body and mind may be misleading, Kahn suggests a third-party system could be helpful to understand better and calculate whether you’re experiencing a sleep debt.
Sources and References:
-  Soomi Lee PhD, “Naturally Occurring Consecutive Sleep Loss and Day-to-Day Trajectories of Affective and Physical Well-Being”, Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 2021
-  Chia-Yi Hou, “Even one night of sleep loss affects mental, physical health, according to a new study”, The Hill, 2021
-  “Sleep Deprivation”, Cedars Sinai
-  Goran Medic, Michelene Wille, Michiel EH. Hemels, “Short- and long-term health consequences of sleep disruption”, National Library of Medicine, 2017
-  “Napping: Do's and don'ts for healthy adults”, Mayo Clinic, 2020
-  Nathaniel F. Watson MD MSc, Safwan Badr MD, Gregory Belenky MD, Donald L. Bliwise PhD, Orfeu M. Buxton PhD, Daniel Buysse MD, David F. Dinges PhD, et al., “Recommended Amount of Sleep for a Healthy Adult: A Joint Consensus Statement of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and Sleep Research Society”, National Library of Medicine, 2015
Jill Zwarensteyn is the editor for Sleep Advisor and a certified sleep science coach. She is enthusiastic about providing helpful and engaging information on all things sleep and wellness.
Based in Los Angeles, she is an experienced writer and journalist who enjoys spending her free time at the beach, hiking, reading, or exploring new places around town.
She’s also an avid traveler who has a personal goal of being able to successfully sleep on an airplane someday.