How Sleep Affects Health and Chronic Conditions

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  • 0:02 Sleep
  • 1:18 Sleep and the Body
  • 3:36 Sleep & Conditions
  • 5:35 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Devin Kowalczyk

Devin has taught psychology and has a master's degree in clinical forensic psychology. He is working on his PhD.

This lesson explores the effects of missing out on sleep. We examine the general issues that happen when a person misses out on sleep, as well as how sleep debt can compound chronic health conditions.


I'm a bit of an insomniac. Not the fun kind who stays up all night and gets work done. No, the kind who stays awake for long periods of time while lying in bed. I just stare into the darkness thinking, always thinking about my day or the next day, or a week, or a month or a year from now.

Sleep is a natural, multistage suspension of consciousness during which time the body goes through restorative or maturational changes. It's a bit of a mouthful to say, and it's also not 100% accurate. We don't really know exactly what sleep is or the exact evolutionary reason we developed it.

While we aren't conscious, our brain isn't deactivated. When we sleep, our brain is just as active as when we were awake, just differently. It goes through a series of stages that we can track by measuring brain activity. But the complexity and wonder of the cognitive aspects of sleeping is for another lesson. What we need to focus on is the changes that occur to the brain and body as we sleep. Let's go over exactly what happens to the body if we don't sleep, and then look and see how it makes chronic conditions even worse.

Sleep and the Body

Let's say you work at a manufacturing job, and you're suddenly assigned to the night shift. Now instead of working 9 to 5, you're working midnight to 8 am. You can basically say goodbye to any kind of normal sleep schedule.

First off, sleep loss reduces attentional capacity. So, our worker at the factory is likely to make more mistakes and worse mistakes the longer he works at night. While you may be as sharp as a tack and focused during the day, the lack of sleep means you won't be able to pay as much attention to what you're doing. We've all felt a little of this when we pull all-nighters, and the next day our brain feels soupy and foggy.

This makes you more prone to accidents, and worse, your intelligence will actually diminish. You just aren't as smart when you don't have enough sleep. More reason not to pull an all-nighter studying. This is likely due to the recovery nature of sleep, where neurotransmitters are replenished and the systems are fortified in the brain.

In addition to making it harder to pay attention, sleep issues can also cause problems with a person's sexual drive. Lack of sleep can reduce sex drive, which causes all kinds of problems in and of itself. Our worker example may start to have problems with desire and sexual arousal the longer he stays at the night job. This is likely due to the regulating nature of sleep, where hormones and blood flow are increased to various parts of the body. Many men with sleep apnea, a condition that causes people to stop breathing as they sleep, have been found to have reduced testosterone.

When we don't sleep well, we don't feel well. This translates to a loss of sleep and causes an increase in the stress hormone cortisol. This means our workers have an overreaction to minor stressors, and may actually break down when bigger stressors occur. Cortisol is a nasty, horrible little hormone that we make. In the short run, it allows for us to unlock energy stores and give us an extra boost of strength and agility. The problem is, if it sticks around in our blood stream, it is very caustic and can begin to break down tissues and organs, particularly in the skin and the memory consolidating part of the brain.

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