Sleeping enough is important according to scientists. PHOTO/COURTESY 


What happens if you don't get enough sleep?

What you need to know:

  • Adequate sleep. Research emphasises the importance of prioritising sleep. 
  • Some of the most serious potential problems associated with chronic sleep deprivation are high blood pressure, diabetes, heart attack, heart failure or stroke.

Did you know that you can die within 11 days and 25 minutes of not sleeping yet you can live up to 45 days without food? Sleep helps the body repair, regenerate, and boosts the immune system. It also enhances the brain’s ability to learn, memorise and make logical decisions. 

According to Dr Vincent Karuhanga, a general physician, adequate sleep is essential for cardiovascular health as well as lowering blood pressure while keeping our hearts healthy. Dr Karuhanga adds that sleep helps our bodies to recharge its energy, fight disease and prevent infection. This is the reason you feel sleepy when you are sick because the immune system actively stimulates the sleep system, demanding more bed rest to help the body fight the infection. 

Melatonin hormone is important in making us feel sleepy. The hormone is secreted by the pineal gland in the brain at night, and is associated with control of the sleep–wake cycle. Throughout the day, its levels remain low but later in the day, its production increases. However, melatonin levels can be suppressed by not getting enough or fragmented sleep. When the melatonin levels are low, it will be hard for you to fall asleep.  

“With inadequate sleep, you are likely to wake up with body aches, a total lack of energy, feeling puffy and fatigued and you will probably just want to curl up in bed and sleep again,” Dr Karuhanga says.

Researchers have proved that not getting enough sleep weakens your immune system, leads to weight gain and can increase the risk of many life-threatening diseases such as dementia, high blood pressure, heart disease, and cancers. 

If you feel like taking a nap before midday, Dr Henry Ssekyanzi, a general physician at Mulago National Referral Hospital, says this is a sign of inadequate sleep the previous night. Not sleeping enough not only affects our productivity the next day but also leads to DNA damage and may increase one’s risk of getting cancer by suppressing levels of key hormones in the body.

It is important to note that sleep has an effect on the body’s metabolism and the conversion of sugar into energy. Even moderate reduction in sleep duration for just a week can increase your blood sugar levels so profoundly to pre-diabetic state.

Sleep deprivation can also slow down your metabolism and increase insulin resistance and cortisol levels as well as inflammation in the body, all of which can have an effect on one’s blood sugar causing diabetes.
“Inadequate sleep increases concentrations of ghrelin, a hormone which, among other effects, stimulates appetite. It makes one feel hungry, while suppressing a companion hormone that signals food satisfaction. This in the long run causes you to gain unnecessary weight from over eating,” Dr Ssekyanzi says.

Cardiovascular system
As we age, our body and health begin to deteriorate. The impact of insufficient sleep on the cardiovascular system is much felt at this point in life. 

According to Dr Karuhanga, adults aged 45 and above who sleep for fewer than six hours are likely to have a heart attack or stroke during their lifetime. Even two hours of reduced sleep, he notes, can have a big impact on a person’s heart rate.  

With little sleep, your coronary arteries in the heart may become blocked and brittle, setting you on a path towards cardiovascular disease, stroke or heart failure over time. 

Sleep disruption may also contribute to major psychiatric conditions and diseases, including depression and anxiety, Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Sleep deprivation can affect your productivity, thinking speed, attention span, memory loss and problem-solving and lead to early onset of dementia. According to Dr Ssekyanzi, it has even been linked to suicide.

It is important to limit screen time by not using your phone, computer or watching TV at least an hour before bed. PHOTO/COURTESY

Not getting enough sleep, according to Dr Karuhanga, also affects a one’s sexual drive, especially in men since testosterone is secreted when they are asleep, especially in the morning. Sleep deprivation could also be the reason you are snoring, gasping or stopping to breath while asleep. It also aggravates asthma. 

To sleep well
Dr Karuhanga says our bodies have an internal ‘clock’ in the brain, which regulates our circadian rhythms (physical, mental, and behavioural changes that follow a 24-hour cycle. These respond primarily to light, darkness and affect both animals and plants.) It is, therefore, important that you limit screen time by not using your phone, computer or watching TV at least an hour before bed.

“It is also better to sleep with the lights off since light can disrupt the body’s natural circadian rhythm and melatonin production, which decreases the quality of sleep. Darkness prompts the pineal gland to start producing melatonin while light causes that production to stop,” Dr Karuhanga says.

Dr Ssekyanzi says habits that are likely to interrupt your sleep such as taking caffeine after 12pm, eating a heavy meal, drinking a lot of water and alcohol should be avoided. 
Foods that are rich in vitamin D, magnesium and zinc lead to good sleep and should be eaten. These include spinach, kale, avocado, bananas, cashews, and seeds. Food rich in zinc include meat, cheese, cooked lentils, and dark chocolate.

Also, remember to have a routine so that you go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day, including weekends and holidays. Dr Karuhanga also discourages exercising right before bedtime. 

He, instead, recommends exercising at least 90 minutes before going to bed. 
“Exercise awakens and keeps the body alert. It also soothes a tired body. If you exercise and immediately go to bed, your sleep will be interrupted,” he says.

If you find it hard to fall asleep,  Dr Karuhanga discourages using sleep medication since these are addictive and disrupt one’s sleep cycle. 

He recommends using melatonin or valerian root supplements that should be taken at least two hours before going to bed. These help one fall asleep in a more natural way and have no side effects.

Ideal sleep
Doctors usually advise an adult to get between six and eight hours of sleep daily. According to the Sleep Foundation, different age groups have different duration of sleep appropriate for them. 

For example, zero to three months (14 to17 hours), four to12 months (12 to16 hours), one to two years (11 to14 hours), Three to five years (10-13 hours), six to13 years (nine to11 hours), 14 to 17 years (eight to10 hours), 18-25 years seven to nine hours), 26-64years (seven to nine hours), above 65 years (seven to eight hours).


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