Can’t sleep? The effects of lack of sleep are no joke. According to some research studies, sleep deprivation side effects can include increased risks of all kinds of serious illnesses, including heart disease, diabetes, stroke and even cancer.
Before you get so worried about these effects that you lose even more sleep, just relax for a moment. I will show you why it’s not a good idea to take every research study that gets published too seriously, and why it definitely a bad idea to lose more sleep over them and allow them to cast a pall over your already exhausted days.
Effects of Lack of Sleep — Insomnia or Sleep Deprivation?
First of all — every insomniac already knows how sleep deprivation has affected their life. And every insomniac would happily sleep more hours — if they could. This is why it hardly pays for people suffering from insomnia to read about the effects of lack of sleep. It causes more anxiety, which makes it harder to get to sleep. And yet it doesn’t offer any helpful insights into the causes of insomnia… nor the cures.
Since sleep anxiety is such a problem for many insomniacs, it’s best to lessen the burden of worrying about the effects of lack of sleep on mental and physical health and well being. This is an important part of any self-help program that uses cognitive behavior therapy for insomnia.
Cause or Correlation?
All scientific studies have to deal with the basic question of cause or correlation. Most researchers do this in a very convenient way — they just don’t talk about it. Most research studies simply decide what they will study and then publish the results. Then they leave it up to others — either other scientists or the media — to interpret and evaluate the results.
Let’s say, for example, that I conducted a sleep research study using 150 participants. I have all of them fill out detailed questionnaires of how much sleep they get every night for a period of three months. I then separate the participants into groups according to how many hours they report getting during those three months. I then follow them for a period of two years. During this two-year period, I continue to track their sleep habits, but mainly I track which participants develop certain illnesses. I then determine how many people who develop these illnesses fall into the different sleep groups. It turns out that the group of participants that got the least amount of sleep had a higher percentage of individuals who developed certain illnesses.
My results — people who get less than six hours of sleep per night were more than twice as likely to develop illness A, B and C than those who got over six hours per night.
When the media gets hold of this study, what do you suppose they will say? No doubt they will immediately conclude that the effects of lack of sleep includes a higher probability of getting certain illnesses. Some won’t even be that subtle. They will simply say outright that not sleeping enough causes people to get sick.
But is it cause or correlation? Here are some other interpretations:
The same factors that cause illness A, B and C might also cause people to have difficulty sleeping. This is the classic example of correlation. Rather than a cause-and-effect relationship between sleep deprivation and illness, it is some root cause that is affecting both sleep and health at the same time.
This root cause could be
- Anxiety and other emotional factors
- Poor diet
- Lack of exercise
- Genetic factors
- Nervous system imbalances
- Endocrine imbalances
- Other underlying (and unknown) health problems such as hypertension, chronic inflammation, and so on.
This is not to dismiss the fact that the effects of lack of sleep exist or that they can be serious or cause health problems. But poor sleep is not a disease, it is merely a symptom. The true causes of insomnia will often turn out to be risk factors for other illnesses and conditions. Stress, poor diet, lack of exercise and ignoring or neglecting natural biorhythms simply do not produce healthy states of mind or body. Insomnia may be the first symptom to show up, but it is a also a great opportunity to develop new lifestyle habits that have far-reaching benefits.
Causes and Effects of Lack of Sleep — Insomnia or Ignorance?
As I pointed out in this article on effects of sleep deprivation, people who do not allow themselves to get the amount of sleep they need should not be compared with insomnia sufferers. If you are staying awake on purpose just to get more time in the day to finish all your endless tasks — or to entertain yourself — then you may be asking for trouble down the road. I say “may” because it is not a certainty. If you are in excellent health and are suffering no effects from your self-induced sleep deprivation, then it’s probably OK to sleep a little less than you need.
But you must be vigilant. If you are feeling tired or if you find yourself falling asleep at red lights or at any other inopportune moment — or if you discover that you can fall asleep immediately no matter where you happen to be — that is a sign that you need to listen to your body and get some extra sleep.
On the other hand, if you want to be “lights out” but can’t sleep no matter how long you stay in bed, then it’s insomnia, and you can just forget all the sleep deprivation studies and awful scenarios and predictions about the effects of lack of sleep. You know this already, and you need to put it aside, out of your consciousness as you work instead on finding — and fixing — the causes that are keeping you awake.