What happens to the body if you don’t sleep well

Poor sleep affects the body in more ways than just feeling groggy the next day

Baseball pitcher throwing
Sleep is an important, innate part of life. How much and how well people sleep, however, is variable.

Picture this: The student in your family gets in bed and falls asleep quickly. They wake up refreshed. They’re wide awake during the day without energy drinks or caffeine. They can sit quietly at school and don’t lose attention.

Does this sound familiar? For most families, it isn’t, according to Michael Howell, MD, with the Fairview Sleep Center in Edina. But what does not sleeping well mean for our bodies?

“A lack of sleep can affect a wide range of physical and mental well-being factors,” Dr. Howell says. “It can be much more serious than just feeling drowsy the next day. Sleep deprivation is a factor in obesity, cardiovascular disease, irritability, poor academic or work performance, tendency towards substance abuse, anxiety, depression, and more. There are even links between prolonged poor sleep and some forms of cancer.”

“Never underestimate the value of a good night’s sleep. Your body needs it.”

Case in point: a teenage athlete

Dr. Howell gives the example of a high school hockey player and explains how not getting enough sleep affects them throughout a day:

“This adolescent wakes up a couple hours before their body would naturally wake up. Their gut isn’t ready to take in food, because the appetite portion of their circadian rhythm is off. This results in not starting the day with good nutrition, and they might miss out on the protein needed to build muscle tissue. At school, they feel tired and aren’t able to retain information particularly well to recall it later in any meaningful way.

“Later at hockey practice, they have slower reaction times, their split-second judgment isn’t as sharp, and their muscles aren’t as strong as they otherwise would be. After practice, their body isn’t recovering as well from joint or tissue injuries, or even concussions.

“That night, if they again don’t get enough sleep, whatever physical activity they were working to improve at practice won’t be encoded in the brain as effectively as it would be if they were getting good, restful sleep. Their growth hormone isn’t adequately secreted to grow their muscle tissues. On top of all that, their body doesn’t adequately secrete a satiety hormone which helps prevent overeating or making poor food choices. The cycle of not sleeping well is vicious.”

Thinking in this context of teenagers, Dr. Howell says parents can ask themselves one thing to gauge if their teen is getting enough sleep: How easy is it to wake them up for school?

Sleep isn’t simple as it seems

“Because sleep seems so basic, most people don’t give it a lot of thought and have become accepting of less-than-desirable sleep quality and duration,” Dr. Howell explains. “But we’re actually doing a disservice to our bodies and not maximizing our full potential by not sleeping enough.”

Sleep experts like Dr. Howell are commonly pictured monitoring patients in an overnight sleep lab, but that’s just a limited part of their work. They also guide and coach individuals on how to maximize the benefits of sleep, drawing on tools like light boxes and helping build healthy habits that improve sleep without medication.

“I understand people are busy, and there may not always be the option to get an extra two hours of sleep,” he says. “But what if we could improve the quality of the amount of sleep you do get? Even that can make a difference.”

“Think of kids. When we want to help them sleep, we establish soothing bedtime routines and rituals – brush your teeth, wind down, read a book. But as we get older, we ignore the importance of mindfully getting ready to sleep. We check emails or binge-watch a show instead. I say, let’s change that. Let’s work towards waking up feeling refreshed.”

Fairview has launched a new program called Sleep Performance Training for athletes. Find out how your student athlete or team can get the edge through sleep.

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