The impact a lack of sleep can have on our lives
In such a fast-paced environment with deadlines to meet, regular working hours falling away, meetings to make, late-shifts to work, kids to fetch, homework to do, not to mention social media, it is little wonder that we have forgotten just how important sleep is.
In today’s world we take our phones, tablets, laptops or TV screens to bed with us, we sleep when we are tired and wake up when the alarm goes off but is anyone taking into consideration how much sleep they are actually getting? And we mean good solid sleep, not just power naps and afternoon siestas.
While most shrug off the importance of sleep to the body, the issue of sleep-deprivation and the effects thereof are of increasing interest and concern in the scientific and medical communities. As such, a number of studies have been conducted on the subject and recent ones show findings that link sleep deprivation to issues with social appeal, weight gain and performance at work, school or home.
In the following article, we will explore the issues associated with lack of sleep and the effect it can have on our lives, looking at three different aspects as mentioned above and the studies that have been conducted to substantiate the findings.
Sleep deprivation and its effect on social appeal
A study published by the Royal Society of Open Science indicates that just a few nights of bad sleep can affect a person’s looks, making them look significantly uglier. This was based on the findings where respondents rated photographs of sleep deprived subjects as being less attractive than photographs of the same people when they had a good night’s sleep and were healthy.
The study, led by Dr Tina Sundelin was conducted by the Karolinska Institute and Stockholm University in Sweden and was also funded by these institutions.
The research involved 11 males and 14 female students, with their ages ranging from 18 to 47. The 25 students were photographed individually twice. The first photo was taken after two nights of normal sleep, and the second photo was taken after two nights of having their sleep restricted.
For the photographs to be taken after two nights of normal sleep, the students were asked to sleep for eight hours, going to bed between 22:00 and midnight and awakening between 6:00 and 8:00.
For the sleep deprivation photographs, students were asked to go to sleep for about four hours between midnight and 02:00, until 04:00 and 06:00.
Actigraphs (special monitors) were used to measure the students sleep activity in order for researchers to ensure that their sleep instructions were followed and that accurate results were obtained.
On average, when the students were sleep deprived, they received a total of seven hours less sleep over the period of two nights in comparison to their normal eight-hour sleep nights.
The photographs were all taken at the exact same time of the day, by the exact same photographer. The students had to have their hair tied back or off of their face in each photo and were not permitted to wear any makeup.
These photos were then reviewed by 122 people from the general public in Stockholm. 65 of these people were women and the other 57 were men. The public were then asked a number of questions and asked to give ratings based on their answers. These results were then studied to detect whether or not any visible difference in the ratings of the different photographs of the students was evident.
The general public who rated the images, with each person having to review 50 images each, were asked to rate the photographs based on the below criteria on a scale between one and seven:
- How attractive the person in the photo was
- How much they would want to socialise with the person in the photo
- How healthy the person appeared
- How sleepy the person looked
- How trustworthy the person looked
The averages for the photographs of the students when they had enjoyed two nights of normal sleep sat between three and five on the scale. However, scores allocated by raters suggested that they were not as willing to socialise with the students when they were sleep deprived after having their sleep restricted.
Interesting, these results showed a margin of just 0.15 of the points on the scale in people’s willingness to socialise with the students when they were rested versus when they were sleep deprived, which is about a 2.1% difference.
Further results for images of the students after less sleep compared with the average ratings after a normal amount of sleep, were as follows:
- The points were 0.9 lower for attractiveness in those with less sleep
- The points were 0.11 lower for appearing healthy in those with less sleep
- The points were 0.25 higher for sleepiness in those with less sleep
What was interesting is that there was no difference in the scores of trustworthiness between the normal sleep and the lack of sleep images.
The results were interpreted with researchers noting that their findings indicated that those with restricted sleep not only had their facial appearance negatively affected but that sleep deprivation also influenced the willingness of others to socialise with a sleep-deprived individual. They concluded that this confirmed their findings that people getting less sleep appeared as less healthy and attractive to others.
The above study may not come as a surprise, as many of us have looked in the mirror after a few nights of bad sleep and not been happy with our appearance. That said, although the statistics behind the results are somewhat significant, it is hard to notice a drop in complete stranger’s willingness to socialise with you, by a mere 2% in real life. In addition, if you are struggling with getting enough sleep in, how much a stranger wants to socialise is not likely to be deemed as an important matter to have to deal with.
Another important factor to keep in mind, is that being an experimental psychology study with a limited demographic that was only restricted to Swedish students, scientifically the results cannot be applied to a larger cross-section of the population without further research. However, it does give us insight into just how sleep deprivation can affect our looks and social appeal.
That said, there is no doubt that being sleep deprived will have negative effects on your health, and suffering from poor sleep on a regular basis can raise your risk of heart disease, obesity (which we will explore next), diabetes, and has also been linked to mental conditions such as depression and anxiety.
Sleep deprivation and its link to weight gain
Having explored the impact that sleep deprivation can have on our appearance, which many of us may have already known by now, we want to explore the effects of sleep deprivation further and discuss the impact it has on our weight.
Recently, a link between sleep deprivation and obesity in children and adults has been identified. Young children between the ages of six and 13 should be getting 10 to 11 hours of sleep a night, with teenagers and adults needing to average around six to eight (in some cases 10 or 11) hours of sleep a night.
The average duration of sleep in people across the globe has seen a severe decline in the past few decades, with both children and adults getting about two hours a night less sleep than what they need. This means that we have incurred an enormous amount of sleep debt in recent years.
Having discussed the effects of sleep deprivation on our appearance and overall social appeal, it can also be said that a lack of sleep has a number of other adverse effects on our health and wellbeing.
A lack of sleep is associated with a number of metabolic changes that affect the body’s behaviour and ability to function. If these kinds of changes become a regular thing for an extended period of time, the result may be that of obesity.
This is due to metabolic changes that include the increased secretion of hormones that are responsible for correct bodily function, including growth hormone, known as GH, cortisol, the thyroid hormone and insulin. Insulin is a vital hormone in helping our bodies to process the sugars from carbohydrates into energy we need to function properly.
A recent study was conducted that showed the existence of molecular ties between weight gain and a lack of sleep. Conducted by the University of Chicago, the research team, led by Dr Erin Hanlon and Dr Eve Van Cauter, wanted to understand exactly how weight gain and sleep interact biologically.
Throughout the study, they noted that suffering from sleep deprivation has effects on one’s body that are very similar to the activation of a key component in the brain that regulates the energy and appetite levels, this is known as the endocannabinoid (eCB) system. The chemical that is found in the drug marijuana activates this system in the same way. The eCB system has an impact on the brain’s ability to spark a specific desire for some tasty foods as a part of its motivation and reward system.
Basically, these endocannabinoid levels are altered when you suffer from a lack of sleep, and this system has chemical signals which affect your appetite and the brain’s system of rewards as a result.
The study involved 14 healthy people, who were not obese in any way. Of these people, 11 were men and three were women, between the ages of 18 and 30. They were then given a fixed diet and were told to have either a restricted amount of sleep, which consisted of four and a half hours a night for four consecutive days or a normal eight and a half hours a night. The participants were all placed in a controlled setting, each having a period of four weeks in between the testing.
For both of the conditions, the researchers obtained blood samples from the participants in the afternoon following their second night. The results of the study were backed in part, by both the National Institute of Health’s National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute and the National Centre for Research Resources.
Researchers discovered that when the participants were sleep deprived, their eCB levels in the afternoons were higher and also lasted longer, as opposed to when they had had a full night of sleep. This occurred simultaneously with them noting a significant increase in appetite and hunger.
Once they had finished dinner on their fourth night of their sleep deprivation test, they would fast until the following afternoon. After which, they were allowed to have their own choices of snacks and meals for the rest of their day. All the food was prepared and given to the participants in the controlled, clinical setting.
For both of the sleeping conditions, the participants ate roughly 90% of their suggested daily calories during the first meal. However, when they were sleep-deprived, the people consumed even more and also opted for unhealthy snacks in-between their meals. It was noted that this consumption was when their eCB levels were marked at the highest level, which suggested that the eCB system was the driving force behind the participants eating for pleasure.
Hanlon explains that when you see junk food or unhealthy snacks when you have had a good night’s sleep, and, of course, enough sleep, then you may have more control over your natural urge to want to eat unhealthy food. However, if you are deprived of sleep, then this drive, known as your hedonic drive (meaning it is a natural urge for pleasure), is often stronger and you may not be able to resist these foods with your ability now impaired. If this becomes a habit, then you may be packing on the pounds in no time and develop other conditions such as metabolic syndrome.
The researchers concluded that sleep deprivation does indeed result in weight gain as our hedonic drive is heightened due to our eCB system being activated.
They also noted that the results are based on the size of the sample the experiment was conducted on, these results are consistent and backed by further research that has been done by other institutions. However, there should be additional studies conducted in order to evaluate and monitor the exact changes of the eCB levels and other influencing factors of this system, such as meal schedules and the body’s internal clock.
Sleep deprivation and its link to mental performance
What many people don’t realise, or take seriously, is that a lack of sleep is a significant factor in pupils’ school careers as it plays a role in lowering their achievement levels. This finding was made evident through a study conducted by researchers who carried out educational tests on an international basis.
Countries who are more affluent seem to have an issue with the children suffering from sleep deprivation. Sleep experts have linked these issues to computers and mobile phones being present in children’s bedrooms at night.
The study found that being deprived of sleep is such a severe disruption for children that lessons are now having to be taught at a lower educational level in order to accommodate for students who are sleep-deprived.
The study conducted by Boston College in the United States found that schools in the United States have the largest number of students who are sleep-deprived. They found that 73% of pupils between the ages of 9 and 10 suffered from sleep deprivation, and 80% of pupils aged between 13 and 14 years old were also sleep-starved. The pupils’ teachers identified them as being negatively impacted by their lack of sleep.
According to literacy tests conducted, 76% of pupils between the ages of 9 and 10 years old were shown to be lacking sleep. This amount is significantly higher than the average on an international basis. Internationally, 47% of pupils were found to need more sleep, of the primary age group (9 and 10-year-olds), with 57% of pupils needing more sleep in the secondary age group (13 and 14-year-olds).
The study conducted literacy tests on more than 900,000 students who were in primary (9 to 10 years old) and secondary (13 to 14 years old) schools. More than 50 countries were tested with regional administrations in controlled environments.
Other countries that followed the United States in having high numbers of students who were sleep-deprived were as follows:
- New Zealand
- Saudi Arabia
The countries that were found to have students who got enough sleep were as follows:
- Czech Republic
The analysis conducted formed part of a massive process of data-gathering in order to obtain the rankings of global education. These data reports included the TIMSS, which is the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, as well as the PIRLS, which is known as the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study.
One of the researchers noted that the importance sleep is underestimated, highlighting the point that students who had more sleep had higher achievement levels in science, reading and mathematics. If students are not able to concentrate in class, then they will not be able to perform at their optimal level as their minds and bodies are needing something that is more basic and the body compensates accordingly.
Researchers concluded that their results are accurate, however, more research is needed to be done on the impact that the students home life has on their ability to perform. Issues such as poverty and nutrition can also have a significant role to play.