Whether you’re awake because your child is or because you’re having a late night out or pulling an all-nighter to finish some work, you will feel it the next day. But what happens when one night becomes a habit? An expert from the Texas A&M College of Medicine talks about what happens when you’ve put sleep on the backburner and offers some tips on how to make sure you’re getting the most of your shut eye.

Acute sleep deprivation

We all have those nights where maybe we are just tossing and turning or just can’t get a full night of sleep, or maybe a particularly late night-early morning combo cut into your sleep time. Either way, you know you’re going to pay for it the next morning, experiencing what is called acute sleep deprivation, but did you know you’ll end up trying to chase down the hours that you missed?

“When someone does finally go to sleep the following night, they’re paying back a ‘sleep debt,’” said Carl Boethel, MD, sleep expert and clinical assistant professor at the Texas A&M College of Medicine. “During that time, they are trying to catch up on stage three sleep, which is necessary for maintenance of bodily functions.”

 This Stage 3 sleep is when the body is important for recovery and during this stage, the greatest amount of cell growth and regeneration occurs. (It’s also when parasomnias, such as night terrors, sleepwalking and bedwetting happen.) People usually don’t catch up on the REM stage of sleep, which is the stage where we dream (and that is responsible for sleep paralysis), on the first night of catch-up sleep because the body prioritizes deep sleep over REM sleep.

Until you get a good night of rest, though, be prepared to feel miserable and not able to function at your best. “When you don’t get enough sleep, you’ll find yourself lethargic and just exhausted until you catch up on your sleep,” Boethel said. “During this time, you’re at higher risk of car wrecks and you won’t function as well as you would if you had gotten a good night of sleep.”

It may be obvious to most people that when they don’t sleep, they feel awful, but surprisingly, there’s more that can happen when you forego a good night of sleep.

“There’s data that shows that when you have acute sleep deprivation, your blood pressure increases and insulin resistance increases also,” Boethel said. “Increased blood pressure can increase your risk of heart disease, and insulin resistance increases the risk of developing prediabetes or type 2 diabetes.”

During this time, you may also notice you crave particularly unhealthy foods. Interestingly enough, this is a natural response to an outside stress. “There is some stress that is keeping you up at night, and this causes your body to respond with increased stress hormones, which trigger a fight-or-flight response,” Boethel said. “Your body thinks there is a need for body to gain more calories quickly and creates a craving for fatty and high carb foods.”

Chronic sleep deprivation

When those days of pulling all-nighters become weeks of getting inadequate sleep (usually during final exams or early days of parenthood), then you begin to develop chronic sleep deprivation. 

“During chronic sleep deprivation, you’re building insulin resistance and increasing high blood pressure,” Boethel said. “You’re exposing yourself to the problems that come with that, and you’re negating the chance for your body to catch up on the maintenance stage of sleep.”

You may also be more susceptible to infection. A 2009 study in the Archives of Internal Medicine followed the sleeping habits of 153 volunteers for two weeks. Researchers found that people who got less than seven hours of sleep were nearly three times as likely to develop a cold than those who got eight hours or more of sleep.

If you’ve been chronically sleep deprived, you might also experience microsleep, a short episode of sleep that can last up to 30 seconds. They can occur randomly during times of sleepiness, and people may not even be aware that they nodded off. Random bouts of microsleep may be okay if you’re just sitting in front of the TV, but if you’re behind the wheel, it can be dangerous.

Ways to improve your sleep

We have all had those nights where we are just staring at the ceiling, and hearing all of the negative ways lack of sleep impacts the body may just make you even more stressed and unable to sleep. The important thing is to relax and work on the ways to improve your shut eye. Some of your activities before bedtime can make or break your sleep—including taking long naps during the day or doing a late-night workout.

“Exercise before sleep is not ideal,” Boethel said. “When you exercise, you increase your core body temperature. When you sleep, your core body temperature drops, and so exercise will make it more difficult to sleep.”

People also tend to have a late-night snack to try and ease hunger, but that also can end up doing more harm than good. “Eating or drinking alcohol right before bedtime tend to disturb sleep by affecting blood sugar levels which influences melatonin production,” Boethel said. “Don’t eat at least three hours before bedtime.”

So, if you can’t sleep, then what should you do? Boethel had some tips for the toss-and-turners. “TV or screens before bed are not ideal; reading is okay, but not on electronic devices,” he said. “If you’ve been lying awake for half an hour, leave the bedroom and try something else. Go read or meditate or relax in some other way in another room.”

The effectiveness of sleep-time teas has yet to be tested in clinical studies, but simply sipping a warm cup of tea or milk can be relaxing for some. However, be sure to avoid the warm drinks if they have caffeine or have you taking a midnight bathroom break.

If all else fails, Boethel recommended talking to a medical professional about the best course of action. “If a person has difficulty sleeping for about three weeks, they should talk to their health care provider,” Boethel said. “You want to get the issue under control before any medical problems ensue.”

— Dominic Hernandez

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