How chronic poor sleep adversely affects the body and brain


If you’re having sleep difficulties, you’re not alone. The American Sleep Apnea Association reports that about 50 million to 70 million Americans have sleep disorders, and 1 in 3 adults (about 84 million people) do not regularly get the recommended amount of uninterrupted sleep they need to protect their health.

Sleep is comprised of two Q’s: quantity (duration of sleep) and quality (depth of sleep), according to Dr. Mark J. Pamer, a pulmonologist who treats patients with sleep problems.

He says, “When individuals fail to obtain adequate duration or quality of sleep, daytime alertness and function suffer.

“Chronic sleep insufficiency is very common in our modern society and may result from things like work demands, social and family responsibilities, medical conditions and sleep disorders. As sleep debt accumulates, a person may experience reduced performance, be at increased risk for accidents and death, and experience detrimental effects on both psychological and physical health,” he adds.

Sleep specialists say that one of the telltale signs of sleep deprivation is feeling drowsy during the day. In fact, even if a daytime task is boring, you should be able to stay alert during it if you are not sleep-deprived.

Dr. Pamer agrees, stating that there are three levels of sleep deficit, and each brings escalating life-affecting problems:

  • Sleep insufficiency exists when sleep is insufficient to support adequate alertness, performance and health, either because of reduced total sleep time (decreased quantity) or fragmentation of sleep by brief arousals (decreased quality).
  • Acute and accumulated sleep deprivation results in measurable changes in cognitive performance, alertness and neurobehavioral function. Susceptibility to such changes varies among individuals and is based on circadian factors. Circadian rhythms are 24-hour cycles that are part of the body’s internal clock, running in the background to carry out essential functions and processes. One of the most well-known circadian rhythms is the sleep-wake cycle. When properly aligned, a circadian rhythm can promote consistent and restorative sleep. But when this circadian rhythm is thrown off, it can create significant sleep problems, including insomnia.
  • Chronic sleep insufficiency has been associated with a variety of adverse outcomes in observational studies. Potential consequences include reduced performance, increased risk for accidents and death, and detrimental effects on both psychological and physical health.

The Columbia University Department of Psychiatry says that there is a strong link between insufficient sleep and mental health disorders. While insomnia can be a symptom of psychiatric disorders such as anxiety and depression, it is now recognized that sleep problems can also contribute to the onset and worsening of mental health problems, including depression, anxiety and even suicidal ideation. Sleep deprivation studies show that otherwise healthy people can experience increased anxiety and distress levels following poor sleep.

Dr. Pamer adds, “Sleep deprivation may result in a mental status that resembles depression or anxiety, with patients reporting poor mood, irritability, low energy, decreased libido, poor judgment and other signs of psychological dysfunction. These symptoms often disappear when normal sleep is restored.”

The Sleep Foundation states that getting enough hours of high-quality sleep fosters attention and concentration, which are prerequisites for most learning, as well as supporting numerous other aspects of cognition, including memory, problem-solving, creativity, emotional processing and judgment.

Levels of brain activity fluctuate during each stage of sleep – including both rapid eye movement (REM) and non-REM (NREM) sleep – and evidence increasingly suggests that sleep enhances most types of cognitive function. Even people who are sleep deprived for only a few nights will suffer from cognitive impairment.

For people with sleep deprivation, insomnia, sleep apnea or other conditions that prevent adequate rest, short-term daytime cognitive impairment is common. Improving sleep quality can boost cognitive performance, promote sharper thinking, and may reduce the likelihood of age-related cognitive decline.

Adds Dr. Pamer, “even when sleep-deprived subjects perform at a normal level, they often report the need for greater effort to maintain performance.”

Chronic poor sleep puts us at increased risk of serious medical conditions, such as obesity, heart disease and diabetes. During sleep, the body secretes hormones that help control appetite, metabolism and glucose processing.

Poor sleep can lead to an increase in the body’s production of cortisol, also known as the stress hormone. In addition, skimping on sleep seems to throw other hormones out of whack. Less insulin is released after you eat, and that, along with the increased cortisol, may lead to too much glucose in the bloodstream and thus an increased risk of type 2 diabetes.

How much sleep is enough? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that adults should get between seven and nine hours of sleep each night, although so-called “short sleepers” require much less and many individuals find they need up to ten hours to function at their best.

Medical experts say you should see a sleep specialist if problems persist for more than three months and are affecting your daily life. A sleep specialist can diagnose and treat sleep disorders like sleep apnea, insomnia, narcolepsy, restless leg syndrome and others.

They are most often neurologists, pulmonologists or psychiatrists who have completed additional training in sleep medicine.

Dr. Pamer says that individuals frequently report that their quality of life suffers due to lack of sleep. They often cut back on activities they enjoy, claiming that they do not have enough energy to perform the activity.

Inappropriate drowsiness and unplanned naps may be a source of embarrassment and friction, both at home and at work. Patients who fall asleep at work or whose productivity suffers due to sleepiness may be reprimanded, denied advancement or fired. Falling asleep at home may cause resentment and marital discord.

Dr. Mark J. Pamer is a pulmonologist who treats sleep, pulmonary and allergy issues. He received a D.O. degree from Nova Southeastern University, did a rotating osteopathic internship at Palmetto General Hospital, completed a residency in internal medicine at the University of Florida, and a fellowship in pulmonary/critical care medicine at Rush University Medical Center. He has board certification in internal medicine, pulmonary disease and critical care. His office is located at 573 NW Lake Whitney Place, St. Lucie West. The phone number is 772-785-5864 and his website is

Comments are closed.