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This Is Your Body on Sleep Deprivation

Missing out on sleep won't just leave you groggy the next day. Over time, sleep deprivation can start to mess with nearly every system in your body, which can put your health and well-being at risk.
07/01/2015 08:40am ET | Updated July 1, 2016
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We're all familiar with the foggy, groggy, irritable feeling that follows a night of poor or inadequate sleep. But the effects of too little shuteye can reach far beyond just feeling out of it or tired.

More and more, research is showing that lack of sleep can wreak havoc on nearly every part of your body. And often, it doesn't take long nearly as long as you think. Here, the surprising ways how sleep deprivation affects every part of you over the course of one night--and in the long term.

Your Brain Goes Haywire

When you're tired, you feel sluggish. And even though most of us tend to think that we can push through those sloth-like feelings like they don't even exist, the fact is that too little sleep can lead to all kinds of major impairments on your cognitive function.

Chief among them? Your ability to focus and learn.

When you're sleep deprived, it's harder to pay attention to the things that are going on around you. You're less likely to remember them, too, since sleep plays a crucial role in the consolidation of memories.

Your ability to solve problems takes a nosedive, too, since sleep deprivation causes your brain to take longer to respond to new information. Which can be especially problematic, say, when you're on the job. Need proof? Studies show that medical residents who work 24-hour shifts make up to 300 percent more errors that result in patient death compared to residents whose shifts last only 16 hours.

Your Metabolism Slows Down

You've probably heard all about how people who skimp on sleep tend to weigh more than their well-rested counterparts. And there are a bunch of theories for why that is: Staying up late can make you prone to scarfing down more unhealthy snacks--up to 550 calories' worth, according to one recent study. Being low on sleep also makes it tougher to make smart food choices, not to mention muster up the energy to exercise. Over time, that can add up to pounds gained.

What's more, if you think this only applies to people who stay up until 2 a.m. while mindlessly eating cheese doodles, you'd be wrong. Regularly falling just 30 minutes short of the recommended seven to eight hours of sleep can increase your risk for obesity by nearly 20 percent, suggesting that even a small sleep debt could be messing with your metabolism, according to recent research presented at the annual Endocrine Society meeting.

Your Skin Gets Dull

They call it beauty rest for a reason: Sleep encourages the turnover of fresh new skin cells, which help brighten your complexion and stave off breakouts by keeping your pores unclogged. It also promotes the production of collagen, the protein that helps your skin stay smooth and supple.

But when you burn the midnight oil, those processes slow down. As a result, your complexion can start to look drab and wrinkly. And with dead skin cells clogging up your pores, you're more prone to blackheads and breakouts.

But wait, it gets worse. When you don't get enough sleep, your blood vessels start to expand. That causes blood to pool under your eyes, resulting in those dreaded dark circles and puffiness. Gorgeous, right?

And by the way, this isn't all in your head or something that beauty magazines make up to get you to buy more products. Research has shown that people really do think you look worse when you skimp on sleep.

When subjects looked at makeup-free photos of people who had either slept for eight hours or stayed up all night, they judged the sleep-deprived folks as looking more tired, less attractive, and less healthy, found one Swedish study.

Your Blood Pressure Spikes

Keeping your blood pressure levels under control is important for reducing your heart attack and stroke risk. But when the number of hours you sleep goes down, your BP numbers can start to creep up, and fast.

How fast? Try just over a week. Normally, your blood pressure drops while you're snoozing. But when Mayo Clinic researchers limited healthy subjects to just four hours of shuteye for nine nights, the subjects' blood pressure spiked around 10 points while they were sleeping. Their heart rates -- another thing that usually falls while you're off in dreamland -- also increased.

The BP bump, experts think, could be stress-related. Getting enough sleep helps your body keep stress hormone levels in check. Consistently falling short, though, might cause stress hormones to run wild, which could cause you blood pressure to spike.

Your Sex Drive Might Plummet

When you're exhausted, it's harder to drum up the energy for sex. No big shocker there. But getting too little sleep might not just make you too tired to have sex. It could play a role in sexual dysfunction, too.

In a study published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine, researchers found that each additional hour a woman slept increased her likelihood for having sex by 14 percent. But well-rested women weren't just found to have more sex -- they may have also had better sex: The researchers also found that women who got more sleep tended to experience greater vaginal arousal compared to women who fell short.

Your Immune System Takes a Hit

Sleep prompts to release of infection-fighting antibodies as well as cytokines, a type of protein that your body needs to fight inflammation, infection, and stress. But when you skip sleep, your body's production of both tends to plummet.

With that in mind, it's not a big surprise that shorting out on sleep can make you more likely to catch illness-causing viruses. In fact, people who log fewer than seven hours of sleep per night are nearly three times more likely to catch a common cold compared to those who sleep for eight hours or more, found one study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine.

The Bottom Line?

Missing out on sleep won't just leave you groggy the next day. Over time, sleep deprivation can start to mess with nearly every system in your body, which can put your health and well-being at risk.

Your job, then, is pretty simple: Whether it means watching less TV, meeting your friends for drinks an hour earlier, or taking steps to make your bedroom more comfortable, do what you have to do to make getting eight to nine hours of sleep each night a priority. In a day, you'll feel well rested and energetic. Over the weeks, months, and years, you'll feel healthier overall.

Firas Kittaneh is the CEO of Amerisleep, an eco-friendly luxury mattress company. Firas writes more posts on the Amerisleep blog about getting better sleep, healthy living and being eco-friendly. Follow him on Twitter.