Why sleep is important and the effects of  sleep deprivation on your body and mind

Category: Better Mood | Author: Elly Prior | First published: 02-11-2010 | Modified: 05-12-2017

Sleep deprivation effects can infiltrate every single part of your life, from your physical health and vitality to your mental well-being and emotional state. Your ability to think, feel and function are all adversely impacted by lack of sleep.

If you’re currently struggling to get a good night’s rest, you’ll know only too well that constant feeling of exhaustion and total lack of energy. You’re probably feeling pretty grumpy and miserable most of the time, too. And I’m sure you’d admit that anyone that lives with you is likely to find you a bit of a pain right now! (I’m not judging, by the way!)

In this article, I’ll list the most common sleep deprivation symptoms to look out for, as well as the underlying issues that can contribute to an inability to sleep. I’ll also point you in the direction of resources that can help with your current night-time woes. It may not feel like there’s a light at the end of the tunnel at the moment, but I promise you, it is there!

We’ll start with a look at the way insomnia (chronic sleeplessness) can affect your body and mind.

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Why sleep is important and 15 physical effects of sleep deprivation

15 Effects of sleep deprivation

You may or may not be surprised to hear that ongoing sleep problems can have a seriously detrimental impact on your physical health. Symptoms can include... 

  1. impaired immunity
  2. changes in hormone levels
  3. weight problems (I know, that may be difficult to fathom, but it's hormone related)
  4. accelerated aging
  5. diabetes
  6. cancer
  7. high blood pressure
  8. heart disease

And when it comes to your mental well-being and your ability to function in your day-to-day life, extreme tiredness can impair your...

  1. decision making skills
  2. concentration
  3. problem solving abilities
  4. thinking in general (you know the feeling of wading through treacle?!)
  5. ability to handle stress
  6. ability to handle your emotions
  7. ability to cope with sudden changes

Long-term sleep disturbances are also often linked with depression and anxiety - either as a cause or a symptom of those conditions themselves.

The lists above make it pretty easy to see that regular, restorative, good quality shut-eye plays a vital role in all aspects of your life.

Why is sleep important?

Your body clock is constantly working to regulate every process that takes place within your body. It follows a 24-hour cycle, sometimes referred to as the sleep/wake cycle or Circadian rhythm.

Not only does it trigger the necessary changes in your body to prepare you for being asleep or awake, but it also regulates your:

  • Blood pressure
  • Pulse rate
  • Digestion
  • Body temperature

As I’m sure you already know, all of these aspects of your physical health are interlinked with just about every other process in your body. So, it’s important that they’re all in tip top condition, otherwise everything starts to go awry. Sleep deprivation effects include a significant disruption to the natural balance and rhythm of your body, creating internal chaos in just about every way possible.

Watch this video to learn more...

Sleep stages, dreaming and insomnia

Healthy sleep involves a constant cycle of different phases of the sleeping process. Yes, it is a process! It’s not simply a case of shutting your eyes, being in a single state of sleep then waking up again. It’s a lot more complicated than that. But for the purposes of this article, all you need to know is that restorative, slow-wave sleep alternates with dream sleep. 

All phases of sleep are important, of course. But when it comes to your mental health, dream sleep is particularly important. That’s because it helps the mind to deal with the emotional arousal left over from the previous day’s unfulfilled expectations. For more on this concept, have a look at "Dreaming Reality - How dreaming keeps us sane, or can drive us mad" by Joe Griffin and Ivan Tyrrell 2004, or visit my article on interpreting dreams.

So, when you suffer from insomnia, not only do you have to deal with physical sleep deprivation symptoms, but you also have to deal with lack of sleep side effects on your mental well-being too. No dream sleep equals no chance for your brain to process and ‘file away’ all of the thoughts and emotions that have built up while you’ve been awake.

The impact of working shifts

This is a really tricky one if shift work is mandatory in your chosen occupation. Our whole physiology was designed for the body/mind to be active during the day, and to be asleep at night. So, of course, working at night and sleeping during the day - whether regular or irregular shift patterns - can play havoc with your body’s ability to function at full capacity.

Research published in the Netherlands in October 2017 found that the number of night workers experiencing sleep issues was nearly double that of those who worked during normal waking hours.

It also found strong evidence to support just how seriously sleep deprivation effects can impact the health night-shift workers. In particular, it highlighted the increased risk of developing diabetes and cardiovascular disease. And also that the risk of developing these illnesses increases the longer a person works at night. Whilst previous studies found a potential increased risk of developing breast cancer, this outcome was not clear in this piece of research.

As a result, the Health Council⧉ in the Netherlands strongly advised the country’s Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment to reduce the amount of work carried out at night as much as possible.

If you’re forced to work shifts, you can take an active role in helping your body to cope with the disruption. Start by taking a look at my advice for good sleep hygiene in my article on natural sleep remedies.

I'm convinced I sometimes slept without knowing it. -Siri HustvedtCould you, at times, be sleeping without realising it?

Potential causes of sleep deprivation

Feeling constantly exhausted, drained, irritable and below par doesn’t make for a happy or healthy you. But I know insomnia isn’t always an easy thing to remedy. 

You can, of course, opt for sleeping pills to help you. While these may be beneficial in the very short term, I would really encourage you to approach them with extreme caution. And ideally I’d want you to explore all other (natural) options available to you first. Medication of any kind comes with a whole host of its own problems. The last thing you need is to complicate your life any further!

The most effective way to address a sleeping problem is by identifying the underlying cause(s) of it. As with almost all of the issues we encounter throughout our lives, we need to know what’s wrong before we can put it right.

Possible medical problems

Talking to your doctor is a good place to start, as insomnia can be caused by a number of medical issues. These include medications like antidepressants, beta blockers and sedatives, as well as:

  • Allergies
  • Arthritis
  • Asthma
  • Cancer
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Heart disease
  • Hypertension
  • Emphysema
  • Rheumatism
  • Hyperthyroidism
  • Pain

If a medical condition is causing your sleeplessness, seeking appropriate treatment for that condition should be the very first thing you do.

Possible lifestyle problems

Don’t roll your eyes but… how’s your diet? And do you exercise often? When you go to bed, are you on your phone for hours?

I’m sure it’ll come as no surprise to you that good sleep requires a well nourished, regularly exercised and bedtime-ready body. If you know you’re not in peak physical condition, making the effort (however hard it may seem) to get healthier can have a hugely beneficial effect on your ability to sleep. There are tonnes of resources out there to help you improve your diet and incorporate exercise into your day-to-day routine.

And scrolling endlessly through your phone right before you go to sleep won’t help you much either. Darkness helps the body know that it’s time to sleep… so a brightly lit phone screen sends out all kinds of confusing messages!

If you’re serious about sleeping well, you’ll be doing yourself a huge favour if you get serious about your lifestyle choices too.

While we’re on the subject, substance abuse (whether legal or illegal, prescription or non-prescription) can also cause significant sleep problems. If you’re struggling with drug, alcohol or any other kind of addiction, getting help to deal with that should definitely be your first port of call. You can now connect with a professional counsellor online. To discover how that works see my page on online counselling.

Possible emotional problems

If you’ve ruled out any physical reasons for your sleeplessness, it’s time to look to your mental health. Emotional turmoil is one of the most effective ways to ensure disturbed sleep! Here are some of the most common psychological causes:

  • Anxiety, Depression and PTSD (Dr Kelly Brogan has developed a really successful treatment for these conditions. Do take a look at her website if you want to avoid taking medication.)
  • Sudden traumatic disturbances in sleep, such as a natural disaster, burglars in your house, an explosion close by, etc
  • Feeling unsafe, either at home (e.g. domestic violence), or simply a general, permanent state of unease, for whatever reason
  • Worries about the health and well-being of someone you love - your partner, a child or a member of your extended family
  • Relationship problems - of all kinds! No wonder...

Sleep problems may impair prefrontal cortical functioning, thereby weakening the top-down inhibition of aggressive impulses."


Helping your body to heal itself

Take a little time to think about what’s going on for you right now. You’ll know if you’re not looking after your body as well as you should be. Or if you’re feeling close to breaking point because of the pressure at work. Or if you’re avoiding dealing with the worries that are constantly nagging at the back of your mind. Take a look at my article on problem solving to help you figure out what precisely the problem is. Yes, you may think you already know, but we've got to get you to consider the details so that you can begin to move forward today.

Working out where your current difficulties lie will give you a head start when it comes to dealing with your sleeping problems.

Lack of sleep side effects are serious, as we’ve seen, but it is possible to get a good night’s sleep again. I promise! 

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by all kinds of different stresses, struggles and fears, now’s the time to reach out for help - in whichever way works best for you. Keep exploring my website for help with all kinds of emotional problems and relationship issues. Google whatever’s on your mind. Talk to your partner, a friend or someone in your family. Or find a therapist if you want to (either near you, or online). With regards to the latter, see my article on online counselling to discover how that works.

Alternatively, know that hypnosis for insomnia can be very effective with the help of a download. See my article Self-Hypnosis FAQ and Downloads.

If you give it a chance and a helping hand, your body’s natural ability to heal and restore its own balance may just surprise you! Everybody is born with the ability to fulfil the innate needs that we all, as humans, have. Sleep is, clearly, much needed… but it becomes effortless when all of your emotional needs are met in balance. To discover more about this, hop over to my article on the Human Givens.

The effects of sleep deprivation on your relationship

Your partner will no doubt know only too well the difficulties you’re having right now. And if you can’t sleep, it’s likely that your restlessness disturbs them too. 

Not having enough sleep can make you feel intensely irritable, lethargic and short-tempered. And that can be difficult for your partner to cope with, too. Again, I’m really not judging here - it is what it is! And anyway, your negative mood is caused - at least in part - by the physical symptoms you’re suffering, so it's no wonder you're crabby at times.

But, that doesn’t mean you get a free pass and don’t have to make an effort to put things right again. Start off by talking to your partner, and helping them to really understand how you’re feeling right now, and exactly what it is that you’re struggling with. 

Be aware that they’ll need to cope with the difficulties you’re having in their own way too. So while you can expect them to be supportive, make sure they can get enough of their own space when they need it.


If you're sleep deprived, the consequences can be really hard to cope with. Feeling constantly drained and starting the day tired and unrefreshed makes even the simplest of tasks seem like a monumental effort. And going to bed at night anticipating that sleep will be hard to come by can start to feel like a lead weight around your neck.

So, it’s time to take charge again. Make it your priority to identify the underlying cause(s) of your insomnia, either alone or with the help of someone else. Then, commit to taking steps to address the problems you uncover. 

You don’t have to fix all of your problems in one fell swoop. (Anyone that can must have some kind of magical powers!) Taking small steps is the very best way to start. Whilst recovery won’t necessarily happen overnight (no pun intended!), anticipate that this period of sleep deprivation will come to an end. With the right attitude and consistent action, there's every chance you'll build up to a regular sleeping pattern again.

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"10 Things to Hate About Sleep Loss." WebMD. WebMD, n.d. Web. 28 Oct. 2017.

*Kamphuis, J., P. Meerlo, J. M. Koolhaas, and M. Lancel. "Poor Sleep as a Potential Causal Factor in Aggression and Violence." Sleep Medicine. U.S. National Library of Medicine, Apr. 2012. Web. 28 Oct. 2017.

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