Lack of Sleep and Its Consequences


By Poonam Sharma, Ph.D

The Consequences of Inadequate Sleep

Although the average adult needs 7-9 hours of sleep, most of us get by with very little sleep. The demands of work, children, and managing our lives can make it hard to get the rest we need. It can be challenging to �turn off� any worries we may have about things such as medical problems, financial difficulties, or an ailing marriage, when it�s finally time to go to bed. The combination of stress and lack of sleep can leave anyone feeling grumpy and impatient, with little energy left to deal with the people and problems in our lives.

Research now shows that getting enough sleep is essential to good health. Lack of sleep can actually make you vulnerable to infections because sleep deprivation affects your immune system. Researchers at the University of Chicago concluded that chronic lack of sleep affects your hormonal and metabolic systems, sometimes accelerating the onset and severity of obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure. Other research has shown that insufficient sleep can actually increase the odds of having a heart attack.

Impaired concentration, memory, and reaction times are other consequences of poor sleep. Lack of sleep can be downright dangerous. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that more than 100,000 vehicle crashes each year are caused by drivers who fall asleep at the wheel.

Sleep time is essential for restoring your physical, mental, and emotional energy. Without enough sleep, you�re like a car that�s low on gas. Take time to refuel and you will have much more energy to embrace the challenges and opportunities of your life.

Tips for Improving Your Sleep

Many problems with sleep are actually caused by poor sleep habits. Fortunately, there are several things you can do to improve the length and quality of your sleep. Try these tips from The National Sleep Foundation�s website ( to help you get a good night�s sleep:

1. Keep a regular sleep schedule. Our sleep-wake cycle is regulated by a "circadian clock" in our brain and the body's need to balance both sleep time and wake time. That is also why it is important to keep a regular bedtime and wake-time, even on the weekends when there is the temptation to sleep-in.

2. Avoid caffeine. Caffeine is a stimulant, which means it can produce an alerting effect. Caffeine products, such as coffee, tea, colas and chocolate, remain in the body on average from 3 to 5 hours, but they can affect some people up to 12 hours later. Even if you do not think caffeine affects you, it may be disrupting and changing the quality of your sleep. Avoiding caffeine within 6-8 hours of going to bed can help improve sleep quality.

3. Avoid nicotine. Nicotine is also a stimulant. Smoking before bed makes it more difficult to fall asleep. When smokers go to sleep, they experience withdrawal symptoms from nicotine, which also cause sleep problems. Nicotine can cause difficulty falling asleep, problems waking in the morning, and may also cause nightmares. Difficulty sleeping is just one more reason to quit smoking.

4. Avoid alcohol. Although many people think of alcohol as a sleep aid because of its sedating effect, it actually disrupts sleep, causing nighttime awakenings. Consuming alcohol leads to a night of less restful sleep.

5. Don't eat or drink too much close to bedtime. Eating or drinking too much may make you less comfortable when settling down for bed. It is best to avoid a heavy meal too close to bedtime. Also, spicy foods may cause heartburn, which leads to difficulty falling asleep and discomfort during the night. Try to restrict fluids close to bedtime to prevent nighttime awakenings to go to the bathroom, though some people find milk or herbal, non-caffeinated teas to be soothing and a helpful part of a bedtime routine.

6. Exercise at the right time promotes sleep. In general, exercising regularly makes it easier to fall asleep and contributes to sounder sleep. However, exercising sporadically or right before going to bed will make falling asleep more difficult. In addition to making us more alert, our body temperature rises during exercise, and takes as much as 6 hours to begin to drop. A cooler body temperature provides a signal that it is time to sleep. Finish your exercise at least 3 hours before bedtime. Late afternoon exercise is the perfect way to help you fall asleep at night.

7. Use relaxing bedtime rituals. A relaxing, routine activity right before bedtime conducted away from bright lights sends a signal to your body that it is almost time to go to sleep and will make it easier to fall asleep. Avoid arousing activities before bedtime like working, paying bills, engaging in competitive games or family problem-solving activities. Try an activity that is relaxing, such as soaking in a hot tub, reading or listening to music, or having a massage. Some studies suggest that soaking in hot water (such as a hot tub or bath) before retiring to bed can ease the transition into deeper sleep, but it should be done early enough that you are no longer sweating or over-heated. If you are unable to avoid tension and stress, it may be helpful to learn relaxation therapy from a trained professional.

8. Create a sleep-promoting environment. Design your sleep environment to establish the conditions you need for sleep: cool, quiet, dark, comfortable and free of interruptions. Also make your bedroom reflective of the value you place on sleep. Check your room for noise or other distractions, including a bed partner's sleep disruptions such as snoring, light, and a dry or hot environment. Consider using blackout curtains, eyeshades, earplugs, "white noise," humidifiers and other devices. Make sure your mattress is comfortable and supportive �the one you have been using for years may have exceeded its life expectancy�about 9 or 10 years for most good quality mattresses. Have comfortable pillows and make the room attractive and inviting for sleep, but also free of allergens that might affect you and objects that might cause you to slip or fall if you have to get up during the night.

9. Associate your bed with sleep and sex only. Use your bed only for sleep and sex to strengthen the association between bed and sleep. If you associate a particular activity or item with anxiety about sleeping, omit it from your bedtime routine. For example, if looking at a bedroom clock makes you anxious about how much time you have before you must get up, move the clock out of sight. Do not engage in activities that cause you anxiety and prevent you from sleeping.

10. Limit sleep time in bed. If you do not fall asleep within 15-20 minutes of going to bed and turning out the lights, it is best to get out of bed and do another relaxing activity until you are feeling sleepy again. If anxiety about something you need to do prevents you from sleeping, it is sometimes helpful to jot down notes in a "worry" or "to do" book. Nap during the day only when needed to maintain alertness and plan on napping 20-30 minutes.

Poonam Sharma, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist and life coach in San Antonio, Texas. Dr. Sharma helps people improve their health, find balance in their lives, and achieve their most important personal and professional goals. Poonam Sharma, Ph.D. may be contacted at