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Effects of prolonged insomnia on human body

Struggling to fall asleep is always a frustrating experience. Did you know that prolonged insomnia can also harm your long-term health? Failing to gain sufficient rest can seriously impact your ability to function and flourish.

Jun 6, 2019 |
6 min read

Everybody has experienced a sleepless night at least once in their life. In turn, this means that everybody is familiar with the unpleasant physical sensations that follow. You’ll be tired, irritable and you find it tough to concentrate on anything.

One night with no sleep isn’t the end of the world, though. You can always grab an early night and reset your body accordingly. But, what happens to your body if you don’t sleep?

When you go through a prolonged period of insomnia, however, things get dangerous. Sleep is every bit as pivotal to the human body as food and water. If we stay awake for too long, we place our health at a very significant risk.

Sleep keeps the mind sharp

The average person needs around eight hours of sleep each night to function at their best. This can vary between individuals, as some people find that half this time is sufficient. Eight hours remains advisable, though.

This is what exactly happens with your body if you don’t sleep

After more than one night of poor sleep, you’ll start to really notice the impact on your body and mind. Your brain will become foggy, and it will be almost impossible to focus on even the simplest tasks. The prospect of making a decision, even something as simple as what you’d like for lunch, will become overwhelming.

In addition to this, you will experience physical symptoms. The first and most notable, issue that arises from fatigue is slow reflexes. This makes driving a car very dangerous, for example. The split-second decision-making that is sometimes required to avoid an accident is simply impossible in somebody that is sleep deprived.

Sleep is essential for physical fitness

It’s not just the brain that suffers through lack of sleep. While we doze, our organs and muscles reset themselves from a day’s toil. If the body is not given a chance to relax and repair itself, it takes a significant physical toll.

The first thing to be impacted will be your immune system. You’ll notice that, when you sleep poorly, you’ll be much more susceptible to coughs, sneezes and general sniffles. This is because your body lacks the strength required to fight off any foreign invaders. It hasn’t had the chance to build up defenses.

Of higher concern is the impact sleep deprivation has on your heart. While you’re asleep, your heart rate slows down significantly. This is why your temperature also drops while you’re sleeping.

This helps your heart settle into a natural rhythm, alternating between day and night. Your heart needs this respite, which acts as a break from pumping enough blood to run every major organ in your body.

If you don’t sleep, your heart works overtime

This, in turn, puts your body under a great deal of stress. You will live in a constant state of ‘fight or flight’ jitteriness, which is why people that don’t sleep are so nervous.

This makes heart attacks much more likely, as the human heart can only take so much strain before it fails. The risk of stroke is also greatly enhanced by a lack of sleep.

A lack of sleep has also been linked to obesity. By getting into a regular sleep schedule, your body adjusts its hormones appropriately. Not sleeping boosts production of a hormone known as ghrelin, which makes you hungry. If you opt for a midnight snack to rectify this, you won’t be able to sleep until the food is digested. This, naturally, means that you’ll be awake even longer.

Finally, the body needs sleep to repair muscle tissue. While we sleep, the wear and tear that our muscles experience throughout the day are healed. This is why we feel refreshed after a long, sound sleep.

If we don’t sleep enough, those niggling aches and strains that we all live with are magnified. This is especially important for anybody that plays sports or exercises regularly. Without sleep, the soft tissue in the body becomes increasingly tender and prone to muscle tears.

We need to dream

Sleep alone is not enough to manage the needs of our body and brain. While we’re slumbering, we also need to dream. Failure to do so can be hugely detrimental to our mental health.

Everybody dreams – even if you don’t remember doing so. This is surprisingly common, with many people failing to recall what unfolded during their midnight movie.

Nobody is sure what dreams represent

Sigmund Freud published The Interpretation of Dreams in 1899, in which he theorized that they represent our unconscious wishes and desires.

Contemporary psychiatric professionals dispute this, providing their own theories. All parties agree is that dreams are a critical element of sleep, though. It’s a chance for our brains to process and file away everything we have experienced over a day. This, in turn, means that we can think clearer the following day.

On average, we have around five or seven dreams each night. These are crammed into a two-hour period, which is known as Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep. As the New York Academy of Sciences explains, a lack of dreams leaves us struggling to process emotions, and places our health at risk.

REM sleep does not immediately begin when we fall asleep. This is why a full eight hours are recommended. Getting enough sleep provides your body and brain with ample opportunities to enter this critical state and to dream.

Dealing with insomnia

If you’re struggling to sleep, you should take action. You’ll now be fully aware of how critical sleep is, and the consequences of not gaining enough in a night.

The simplest solution to dealing with sleep is approaching your doctor, and asking for a prescription of sleeping pills. This should be handled with care, though. Forcing yourself into an artificial sleep pattern is not necessarily helpful. You’ll be groggy and struggle to function when you wake up. This means you may need to rely on artificial ‘highs,’ such as caffeine, to perk you up again.

Caffeine is one of the biggest dangers to getting a good night’s sleep. We all enjoy a coffee or two to get our day started but cut it out by midday. This will leave you with sufficient time to flush it from your bloodstream, which will help you sleep at night.

Minimize your screen time after the sun goes down

Stop watching TV, checking your cellphone or tablet and using a computer around an hour before bed. This allows your brain to calm down, and you’ll be more likely to fall into a deep, uninterrupted sleep.

Finally, if you’re partial to an evening snack, have a banana. These fruits are rich in magnesium, which relaxes your muscles and mind. They also contain melatonin. This hormone reacts to darkness. When you switch your lights out at night, melatonin sends a message to the brain that it’s time to sleep. This will help you doze off in no time at all.

Sleep is so important, and sadly, a great many people simply do not get enough of it. Life in the 21st Century is hectic and onerous, and it often feels like there simply aren’t enough hours in any given day. Sleep is often the first thing to be devoted in such an instance.

Try to get out of this habit, and to ensure that you enjoy 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep every night. This may sound intimidating, but it can actually work in your favor. If you get enough sleep, you’ll be mentally and physically sharper – meaning that you’ll achieve more in your waking hours.

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