A single night of poor or diminished sleep can lead to short-term effects, such as daytime tiredness and irritability. However, a frequent or consistent lack of sleep may increase the risk of developing longer-term, or chronic, health issues.

This article outlines what might happen when a person does not sleep. It also provides some tips on how to catch up on lost sleep.

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Below are some issues that may occur if a person does not get enough sleep.

Mood changes

A 2018 review outlined the association between sleep deprivation and mood changes. It included studies that demonstrated an association between sleep deprivation and increases in the following:

  • anger
  • aggression
  • emotional outbursts

The review also noted that sleep deprivation can worsen preexisting mood disorders, such as depression and anxiety.

Decreased learning ability

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), sleep is essential for healthy brain function.

During sleep, the brain consolidates information it has processed throughout the day. Because of this, a lack of sleep directly affects a person’s ability to learn new information or skills.

According to the NIH, a lack of sleep can also have negative effects on the following:

  • attention
  • decision making
  • creativity

Changes in cognition and memory

A 2014 study investigated the association between sleep duration and cognitive decline in women.

It found that women who slept for fewer than 5 hours or more than 9 hours per night in later life had increased cognitive decline compared with women who slept for 7 hours per night in later life.

Overall, the women who had too little or too much sleep were about 2 years more advanced in terms of their cognitive decline.

Increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease

Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive brain condition that gradually impairs thinking and memory. Some scientists propose the amyloid hypothesis as an explanation for how Alzheimer’s may develop.

According to the hypothesis, Alzheimer’s disease develops due to an accumulation of beta-amyloid proteins in the brain. These sticky proteins clump together to form large deposits called plaques.

The plaques disrupt nerve signaling in the brain, which eventually leads to the death of brain cells.

One 2018 study noted that the immune system helps clear beta-amyloid from the brain during sleep. It found that a single night of sleep deprivation increases levels of beta-amyloid in the brain.

The researchers suggest that prolonged sleep deprivation may increase a person’s risk of developing Alzheimer’s.

Increased chance of weight gain

People who sleep for fewer than 6 hours per night are more likely to have a higher body mass index (BMI) than those who sleep for 8 hours each night.

While a person sleeps, the body releases hormones that help regulate metabolism, process gluten, and suppress appetite. As a result, losing sleep can result in an increase in food cravings and lead to the consumption of excess calories the following day.

Increased risk of heart disease

Blood pressure naturally decreases during sleep. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), consistently getting fewer than 7 hours of sleep each night can cause blood pressure to remain higher for longer.

High blood pressure increases a person’s risk of developing heart disease. This, in turn, increases the risk of heart attack and stroke.

Increased risk of diabetes

Diabetes is a type of metabolic condition characterized by elevated blood glucose levels.

Sleep deprivation almost triples a person’s risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

However, getting too much sleep may also be an issue. In one 2015 study, researchers found that the lowest risk of developing type 2 diabetes appears among people who regularly get between 7 and 8 hours of sleep per night.

The findings also suggest that getting too little or too much sleep could increase a person’s risk of developing this condition.

Increased risk of infections

People also seem to have an increased risk of becoming sick when sleep deprived. One 2015 review investigated the relationship between the immune system and sleep.

The researchers concluded that sleep may help modulate different aspects of the immune system in a way that helps protect against infections. They also state that a lack of sleep can lead to decreased immunity.

Increased risk of colorectal cancer

A 2019 study found a significantly higher risk of colorectal cancer among people who experienced sleep disorders compared with those who did not experience sleep disorders.

The researchers suggested that sleep deprivation may disrupt natural body rhythms and immune-stimulating hormones that help protect against colorectal cancer and other types of cancer.

Changes in sexual health

According to a 2019 review, insufficient or disrupted sleep can affect sexual functioning in men.

The authors recommended that doctors consider sleep deprivation when treating erectile dysfunction and other sexual functioning issues.

It may take some time for a person to catch up on lost sleep and to feel the benefits of doing so.

The following tips can help improve a person’s sleep hygiene, thereby helping them catch up on lost sleep:

  • establishing and maintaining a regular bedtime routine
  • getting up at the same time every day
  • being physically active throughout the day
  • avoiding daytime napping
  • putting away all electronic devices before bedtime
  • not eating large meals before bedtime
  • not drinking alcohol or caffeine before bedtime
  • taking time to relax before bedtime
  • only using the bed for sleep and sex
  • sleeping in a cool, quiet, and dark environment

Missing a few hours of sleep once in a while or a few times per week may not require a visit to the doctor. In these cases, people can try some home care strategies that will help them catch up on their sleep.

However, a person should see a doctor if they experience any of the following:

  • poor duration or quality of sleep despite implementing the necessary changes
  • a lack of sleep that affects the person’s day-to-day life
  • possible symptoms of a sleep disorder, which may include:
    • an inability or delayed ability to get to sleep
    • waking repeatedly throughout the night
    • waking too early and being unable to get back to sleep
    • excessive daytime sleepiness

Sleep appears to have multiple important functions. For example, studies suggest that sleep helps stabilize mood, support learning and memory, and prevent infections and disease.

An occasional lack of sleep may not be a cause for concern. However, continued sleep deprivation can increase a person’s risk of several chronic conditions, including dementia, heart disease, and diabetes.

A person who frequently experiences a lack of sleep should try some home care strategies to improve the quantity and quality of their sleep. Anyone who experiences severe or persistent sleep problems should see a doctor for advice.