During sleep our body and mind restore themselves to make us ready for the activity of the following day. We process our experiences, thoughts and emotions in our dreams, and hormones for physical repair and growth are released from the brain. Whichever way you look at it, we can’t manage without sleep.
Here we’re going to look at what happens in the long and short term when we can’t sleep properly or can’t sleep at all.
What happens if I don’t/can’t sleep?
People suffer from insomnia either when they can’t get to sleep or when they can’t stay asleep. There are plenty of reasons that people can’t sleep so finding yours is (obviously!) the first step so that you know what to do about it. Our busy lives and multiple stressors often mean that we forget how to settle, relax and go to sleep and it’s estimated that 1 in 3 of us will suffer from insomnia at some point in our lives.
Re-learning the art of going to sleep may seem silly as sleep is a natural process, but if you’re reading this because it’s been a while since you had a good night’s sleep then you probably already feel less than your bright and bubbly self. You may be bad tempered, cranky and unable to focus on what you’re doing. You may find that you’re making bad decisions, having more accidents in the home and in the car, and finding everyday tasks a struggle.
New parents find a whole night’s sleep becomes a luxury in the first months of a baby’s life, so look here for tips on helping your baby to sleep. There is section of this site devoted to babies, children and sleep.
- Irritability. Feeling mentally exhausted as well as physically tired makes us less tolerant of things that we normally might not notice or care about – a barking dog or crying baby for example, or a comment from a loved one.
- Insomnia can lead to depression and anxiety. Because your ability to reason and be rational is eroded when you can’t sleep, this can lead to depression and an inability to cope with what life throws at you. Levels of depression vary from mild to severe depending on any previous depressive history you might have and how long you suffer with insomnia.
- You become more susceptible to infections. As your immune system can’t restore itself to protect the body you may find that you get more coughs and colds or more major infections.
- Poor hand-eye coordination. Some people find they get a slight tremor or shake as they become more tired. So if you’re involved with precise work that needs you to be able to see and place objects properly (for example needle work, some factory work or even typing), insomnia can make this more difficult.
- Weight gain, especially round the stomach/midsection. If you’re feeling physically tired it’s unlikely that you want to go out for a walk or do many activities that burn calories, so weight gain becomes inevitable. Couple that with feeling emotionally down and that can make you want to reach for the biscuit barrel. There may also be a hormonal imbalance caused by the insomnia that makes this worse – cortisol is a stress hormone that, in excess, makes us put weight on round our middles; and growth hormone is released at night when we sleep and is a hormone that makes us burn fat.
- Poor memory. Sleep helps us process the events of the day and store them in our memories. There is growing evidence that learning before going to sleep can help to improve our memory recall.
- Increased blood pressure. This may be caused by stress – either the stress of not being able to sleep or the stress that is causing the lack of sleep. If the lack of quality sleep is caused by sleep apnea then this will also contribute to the high blood pressure.
Finding the causes of insomnia is vital if you’re going to overcome it. Help is at hand though: