On Matters of Sleep and the Body

The human body is often cited to be a complex machine, with several subsections that are working in conjunction with one another. As such, it can be seen that there is some truth to the traditional Chinese medicine concept of treating overall balance, rather than individual symptoms. Since all the systems are inevitably interconnected, then what affects one aspect of a person’s physical or mental health can also have an effect other aspects. While everyone and their grandmother knows that disrupting one’s sleep patterns or a lack of sleep can have an effect on the body, new research is revealing that there may be more side effects than conventional knowledge is aware of.

Most people are already aware of the more immediate effects of sleep problems, such as insomnia. There is a noticeable drop in alertness and cognitive ability, which can sometimes appear to be cumulative if the lack of sleep is prolonged. Sensory information can sometimes be processed slower than normal. There are also some studies that point to partial temporary memory loss as an effect. The ability to control body temperature is also disrupted, with some people losing the ability to regulate body heat altogether after prolonged periods with disrupted or broken sleep cycles. Significant lack of sleep has also been known to speed up the aging process of the skin, making a person seem older than they actually are.

However, there are even more problems for those with chronic lack of sleep or broken sleep cycles. According to research recently completed by the U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research, the metabolism of a person may also be subject to side effects of sleep deprivation. There were profound differences in the metabolic rates of the people who were subjected to controlled levels of sleep deprivation. The results showed that glucose tolerance, one of the key indicators used to determine whether someone has diabetes, changed. Rather than showing a normal glucose tolerance for their age, the sleep deprived test subjects exhibited the tolerance of someone in the early stages of diabetes. The results seem to indicate that the body’s ability to metabolize glucose is hampered by sleep debt.

The results suggest that sleep deprivation may play a role in the onset of diabetes, as well as being considered as a possible factor in the statistic rise of people with diabetes in developed countries. Other effects that the study noted included hypertension, more rapid aging of skin cells, a decreased metabolic rate (which may lead to obesity), and various memory-related issues. The study was conducted only on a short-term basis (for this type of research), lasting only 16 days. It is speculated that the recorded effects can only get worse if the sleep deprivation period was prolonged.

It is notable that, unlike studies that have come before it, this research team was not interested in the cognitive effects. There has always been speculation on the concrete physical effects of a lack of sleep on the body, but there has never been a study dedicated solely to pursuing what those effects are. The study is actually considered rather timely, mainly because most of the working population spends less than the recommended eight hours of sleep. While the difference of eight hours to the average sleep time of five hours may not seem that significant, the results emerged from test subjects who were subjected to just five hours of sleep per 24-hour period.

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