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The Health Effects of Poor Sleep

March 13, 2023

Poster for video Sleep and Performance with Andrey Zinchuk, MD, MHS

Sleep is linked to nearly every bodily function—from how well our bodies fight infection to how well we think, so getting a good rest every night is important.

“I think of every hour of sleep as putting money into a ‘sleep’ savings account,” says Andrew Zinchuk, MD, a Yale Medicine pulmonary, critical care, and sleep medicine specialist. “If your ‘sleep’ savings account is depleted or overdrawn, it will negatively affect your brain and how you interact with the world.”

That’s because even a single night of sleep deprivation can impact our memory and attention, he explains. “We know that sleep-deprived people take longer to make decisions, and those decisions tend to be incorrect,” he says.

To continue with the analogy, every day of sleep deprivation compounds interest on a loan, meaning the effects of poor sleep build up, Dr. Zinchuk explains. “For example, if a 30-year-old is deprived of sleep for four to six hours a night for two weeks, reaction time, memory, and the ability to think critically all worsen,” Dr. Zinchuk says. “After seven days of four-hour sleep deprivation, it’s the equivalent of not sleeping for two days in a row.”

Lack of sleep also affects our emotions—making us not only tired but also more irritable—two things that, over time, can lead to depression and anxiety, Dr. Zinchuk adds.

If you are sleep-deprived, the good news is that there are several strategies you can use to help you get through the day and back on track.

“First, be kind to yourself. Don't get frustrated that you're not getting sleep. Second, try to take a cat nap during the day, as 20 to 30 minutes can go a long way,” says Dr. Zinchuk.

Additional tactics include exposing yourself to light during the day, having caffeine at strategic times (ideally before 2 or 3 pm), getting exercise, and practicing yoga or mindfulness, he adds.

“The bottom line is that sleep is really important, and when we get less than seven hours of sleep on average per night, there are consequences for how we think and react to people around us,” Dr. Zinchuk says. “If you have chronic sleep deprivation, talk to your doctor.”

In the video above, Dr. Zinchuk talks more about the effects of sleep deprivation.