5 Ways Your Sleep Habits Can Mess With Your Health

It's no secret that, for many of us, it's difficult to stay on a consistent sleep schedule and get seven to nine hours of shut-eye each night. Some people have Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome, which means that their bodies are inclined to sleep from approximately 3 a.m. through 11 a.m. — which doesn't quite jibe with the 9-5 work schedule. Then there's the matter of our busy lifestyles — many people in their 20s and 30s work long hours, but go out when the workday ends because we want to have a work-life balance. And that doesn't even include finding the time to exercise, run errands, and participate in volunteer work. So, it's no surprise that 30 percent of American adults get less than six hours of sleep each night.

This is more dangerous than you might think. According to the CDC, the number of overtired people in the country presents a public safety risk. People who haven't gotten enough sleep are more likely to get into car accidents and make huge errors at work (a big concern for individuals who work in the medical and industrial fields). Poor sleep can also contribute to a number of long-term health issues.

So, it's no surprise that sleep habits can hurt our overall physical and mental health. And, no, "catching up on sleep" over the weekend isn't an effective way to combat these health concerns — the only solution is to stay on a consistent sleep schedule throughout the week and on the weekends.

These are five serious health issues associated with sleep deprivation:

1. Increased Risk Of Cardiovascular Illnesses

If you eat well, exercise, and and generally look after your health, you may not think that you're at risk for a cardiovascular disease. But sleep-deprived people of all ages are at an increased risk for heart problems. Yup, all ages — I know many of us feel invincible in our 20s and 30s, but it turns out we're not. According to the National Sleep Foundation, it's not completely clear why sleep habits are so detrimental to our hearts — but researchers believe lack of sleep disrupts biological processes such as blood pressure and glucose metabolism.

2. Increased Diabetes Risk

Research has shown that just one week of sleep deprivation can wreak havoc on your glucose tolerance — and people who consistently sleep less than six hours per night are twice as likely to develop diabetes. The impaired glucose tolerance is also why lack of sleep can cause food cravings — when your body can't properly uptake glucose into the cell, you'll feel hungrier and eat more. Typically, the sleep-deprived will crave foods like sweet and salty snacks rather than protein and veggies.

3. Impaired Cognitive Abilities

If a sleepless night has ever left you feeling completely hazy and as though it takes you a few seconds too long to process information, you're not alone — because sleep deprivation has serious effects on our cognition. Research has shown that lack of sleep slows our response speed and can result in variability in our academic and professional endeavors. The reason for this is pretty straightforward — we're less alert and our concentration suffers when we're sleep-deprived. Ongoing research will focus on how sleep habits affect higher level cognitive capacities, such as perception, memory, and executive functions.

4. Weakened Immune System

Sleep deprivation weakens our immune systems and makes us more likely to catch colds, flus, and viruses. When we don't get enough sleep, it suppresses the immune system's ability to function and fight off contagious illnesses. And once we are sick, sleep habits affect how quickly we'll recover. For example, fevers tend to rise when we're sleeping — but if we don't get the necessary shut-eye, the fever reaction won't be able to do its job. So, a compromised immune system can result in catching every cold and flu that goes around the office — and it means we'll be sick for longer than someone who consistently gets adequate rest.

5. Mental Health

We've all been there — after a sleepless night, we don't generally feel happy or pleasant. Lack of sleep can cause irritability, a short temper, and a weakened ability to manage stress. Researchers at University of Pennsylvania found that even a week of sleep deprivation has major effects on the mood — the subjects reported feeling sad, stressed out, angry, and mentally drained. They also reported that, once normal sleep patterns were resumed, their moods improved dramatically.

Researchers have also found that trouble sleeping is the first sign of depression — 15 to 20 percent of individuals with insomnia were later diagnosed with major depression. Although sleep patterns aren't the sole cause of any mental illness, they increase the risk — especially amongst people who are genetically vulnerable to depression and anxiety disorders.

Sleep deprivation has a wide variety of causes, ranging from hectic lifestyles to clinical insomnia to delayed sleep phase syndrome. But it's something that should be taken seriously — you may not feel the effects when you're 22, but that doesn't mean that your sleep habits aren't taking a toll on your long-term health. If you find yourself unable to get on a healthy sleep schedule due to a sleep disorder, talk to your doctor — they have plenty of experience dealing with these disorders and can help you get on the right track.

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