Man Yawning in Car

Could Lack of Sleep Literally Be Killing You?

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Man Yawning in CarDemanding, stressful jobs, busy schedules, overloaded to-do lists, after-school activities… it’s no wonder that, as a nation, we are just plain tired. With so much going on in our everyday lives, many of us are resorting to staying up later and later to get things done, sacrificing valuable hours of sleep along the way.

What’s more, chronic stress from having too much on our plate can lead to insomnia, sleep disturbances, sleep apnea, and other conditions that affect the quantity and quality of the sleep we get.

Unfortunately, the cost of poor-quality sleep and sleep deprivation is much greater than just being tired or cranky. Both have been linked to diabetes and insulin resistance,[1] heart disease, inflammation,[2] obesity, and even binge eating.[3] And, newly published research out of Germany now links lack of sleep with two other scary and life-threatening conditions: strokes and cancer.[4]

In light of how little sleep Western cultures are getting these days, researchers wanted to see what effect sleep duration had on the occurrence of certain chronic diseases. They analyzed 23,620 participants in the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC)-Potsdam study.

Compared to average sleep (seven to eight hours per day), short sleep (less than six hours per day) was associated with a 30 percent increased risk of overall chronic disease.

In particular, at a follow-up 7.8 years later, there were 169 incidents of stroke, and the risk for those who got less than six hours of sleep per day was increased twofold when compared with those who slept seven to eight hours. There were also 846 cases of cancer with a 40 percent increase in risk for people who clocked in less than six hours of shut-eye.

Researchers concluded, “Sleep duration of less than six hours is a risky behavior for the development of chronic diseases, particularly stroke and cancer.”

Zest for Zzzzs

There are two types of restorative sleep: REM (rapid eye movement) and non-REM. Both types are important, but the most profound rejuvenation occurs during non-REM sleep. During this stage, your body experiences a decline in heart rate and blood pressure, your muscles relax, and there is a reduction in the stress hormone cortisol throughout the body.

In addition, during non-REM sleep, the body rebuilds and replaces damaged tissue, and it builds muscle and bone. Research also shows that the immune system strengthens during non-REM sleep.

Considering that all of this rejuvenation and repair takes place while we sleep, it makes sense that lack of sleep or poor quality sleep can lead to chronic disease.

So while sometimes life circumstances get in the way of a full night’s sleep (parents with young babies can certainly attest to this), you should still strive to get as much uninterrupted sleep as you can, ideally, every night.

Here are some tips for making that happen:

1. Wake up and go to sleep at the same time every day, even on weekends.

2. Establish a soothing and predictable bedtime routine.

3. Try meditation or deep breathing exercises before falling asleep.

4. Make sure your bedroom is dark, quiet and comfortable.

5. Keep TVs, computers and other distractions out of the bedroom.

6. Avoid caffeine and alcohol close to bedtime.

7. Exercise regularly, but do it at least three hours before bedtime.

8. Take melatonin, a hormone that regulates your sleep/wake cycle.

While melatonin is naturally produced in your body from the neurotransmitter serotonin, you may not produce enough if your serotonin levels are low.

You can find melatonin in most pharmacies and health food stores, or online by clicking here. Take 1 mg just before bedtime. You can also take 50–100 mg of 5-HTP, a precursor to serotonin.


[1] Spiegel K et al. Effects of poor and short sleep on glucose metabolism and obesity risk. Nat Rev Endocrinol. 2009 May;5(5):253–61.

[2] Patel SR et al. Sleep duration and biomarkers of inflammation. Sleep. 2009 Feb:32(2):200–4.

[3] Trace SE et al. Sleep problems are associated with binge eating in women. Int J Eat Disord. 2012 Feb 13. [Epub ahead of print.]

[4] Von Ruesten A et al. Association of sleep duration with chronic diseases in the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC)-Potsdam Study. PLoS One. 2012;7(1):e30972.