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Healthy Aging

The Health Dangers of Too Little Sleep

By Sheryl Kraft

Created: 08/25/2010
Last Updated: 02/28/2018

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I don't know about you, but I don’t do well on less than 7 or 8 hours of sleep. My husband regularly gets by on 6, preferring to wake up very early (so early, in fact, that I consider it still nighttime!). And come the weekend my sons, being in their 20s, favor starting their nights just about when mine are ending. One light goes out, another one turns on…

But I worry about what the lack of sleep is doing to my all of them. They insist they feel fine; I say they always look tired. If I followed their sleep habits, I'd be way cranky, tired, draggy and just plain ineffective. I'd probably be making a lot of mistakes (so, be warned: if you catch any typos here, give me a little sympathy. I’m probably sleep-deprived).  

My hubby and sons are not alone in skimping on sleep; Americans, in general, sleep than they did in the past – averaging just 6.9 hours per night.

So what? you might be thinking. Everyone's sleep requirements are different. If they feel okay, what harm can a few hours less a night do?

Apparently, a lot. After a two-week test, volunteers who had less than six hours of sleep suffered declining  cognitive abilities and reaction times – even though they thought they were just a wee bit more tired and that they were functioning pretty normally.

What's scarier than that is that at the end of the two-week test, their level of impairment was similar to subjects who had been awake continuously for 2 days. Think about it – if you had to be awake for 48 hours, just how well would you function?

And it's not only your ability to reason and remember that is affected poorly by too little sleep.  It's your weight, too. The hormones that promote appetite and reduce the sensation of fullness after a meal go haywire when there's a sleep deficit. Your risk of developing diabetes can be affected by too little sleep, too; the way your body responds to sugar is dictated by those lost hours.

And then there's blood pressure and heart disease, two more things that are connected to sleep deprivation.

This Matters> Try the obvious: get more sleep. The good news is that researchers found that hormone levels returned to normal when study subjects got to sleep 10 hours for two consecutive nights; their hunger and appetite ratings were lowered by close to 25 percent. That translates to an appetite returned to normal, a happier and healthier (and more level-headed) person.

Tune in next week when I reveal some surprising reasons women – as they get older - are not sleeping

You might also want to read:

Tips to sleep better:

How exercise can help:

Dr. Pam Peeke's take on sleep:


Thanks for this reminder. I try to exercise but when life gets crazy, that goes out the window, too.

I hope you can leave the window open and get all the sleep and exercise you need, soon!

This sounds familiar! My optimal sleep time is 9 hours, but my boyfriend only needs 7, so sometimes he has a tough time understanding why I go to bed so early. I'm hoping I might rub off on him a little bit so he'll get a little more sleep and be healthier for it.

Susan, Since he's up before you, maybe he can get busy in the kitchen preparing a nice, healthy breakfast (?)

I cannot function without a minimum of 7 hours and I go through periods where I need 9 hours.

This is so important. Personally, I love sleeping. Nothing better for my mood or my health than a good snooze.

I know that being "busy" is the new way to seem "successful," but skipping sleep is bad for everyone.

A good snooze solves (almost) everything, doesn't it?

I've found that I am a lot more effective after sleeping than before. Once tasks start taking long and my frustration or sadness level goes up, I know it's time to go to bed. It's silly to push through because I can get so much more done when I am rested.

Not enough sleep equals me being a BIG CRANK. And one who chases her tail, getting nothing at all accomplished.

I think not getting much sleep -- and being proud of it -- is a real American trait. We work all the time, we take the fewest vacations in the civilized world, we don't need much sleep -- and this is presented as the ideal. In fact, needing more sleep feels almost shameful to admit.

So true, Ruth. People do like to brag about how little sleep they're getting. It's almost as if sleep is an unnecessary indulgence.

I'm trying to recall, but didn't you do a post at one point that referred to a study where some people function better on 6 hours of sleep versus the full 8? For the last few weeks, I diligently got my 8 hours each night and I was crankier instead of more rested. I went back to 6/7 a few nights ago and it feels so much better. How could that be?

Yes, you're remembering correctly, Kristen. That was about certain people who have a gene that lets them get by on less sleep than the average person. Lucky you!

I find that, though I enjoy staying up late, I feel best when I go to bed earlier and get up earlier, than when I go to bed late and wake up late--and get the same amount of sleep!

I enjoy staying up late, too, but don't because, like you, the time seems to matter. I guess that is our own personal body clock at work.

Definitely not a ho-hum article (excuse me, couldn't resist).

I need about 9 hours, and when I was a teen and in college I frequently would sleep 12 hours on weekends making up for lost time during the week. Sounds like you're saying that actually works, physiologically?

Oh, I get it, Vera. Very cute!

I've read studies that say you can *catch up* on sleep by making it up on the weekends; others that say you can't. Who knows? But everyone agrees that sleep itself is a great healer.

It's just crazy how much we all need sleep and how few of us get the number of hours we need. I blame electricity. If we went to sleep with the dark and got up with the light, we'd all be incredibly well rested...

Indeed. Natural light really does dictate our sleep-wake cycles.

I need 8-9 hours. Always have. I'm in bed early and up early. My man is in bed late and up late. Talk about ships passing in the night, we barely do!

I've got the same thing w/my hubby, frugal. He's religious about early-to-bed, early-to-rise, while I'd rather stay up late and play. But then I pay for it the next day.

I'm with you: I need 7-9 hrs of sleep, rarely get more than 6 (typing this at 11:30 at night knowing I have an early work start). I'm my own worst enemy on the sleep deprivation front, even though I know all the consequences a lack of shut eye can cause, both personally and from writing on the subject as well. And so, for now, a good night.

It does seem like everyone has a personal preferred number of hours. I do great on 7 hours (better on 10, best when the cat isn't sitting on my head, asking for food) but my husband is happy with just 6.

10 hours...now, that would be but a dream.

I don't need researcher to tell me what happens when I don't get enough sleep. I get clumsy, cranky, forgetful, distracted, less productive, sleepy...need I go on?

Ah, yes, Sarah. All that and more. Very, very much of all of those things for me, too.


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