Here’s What Happens When You Don’t Get Enough Sleep (and How Much You Really Need a Night)

If you eat well and exercise regularly, but don’t get at least seven hours of sleep every night, you may be undermining all of your other efforts.

And we’re not being dramatic! Sleep is crucial for our health — and many of us are lacking when it comes to it.  

“First and foremost we need to make sleep a priority,” says sleep expert Michelle Drerup, PsyD, DBSM. “We always recommend a good diet and exercise to everyone, but along the same lines we recommend proper sleep as well.”

How much sleep do you actually need?

Everyone feels better after a good night’s rest. But now, thanks to a report from the National Sleep Foundation, you can aim for a targeted sleep number tailored to your age.

The foundation based its report on two years of research and breaks it down into nine age-specific categories, with a slight range that allows for individual preferences:

  • Adults, 65+ years: 7 to 8 hours.
  • Adults, 26 to 64 years: 7 to 9 hours.
  • Young adults, 18 to 25 years: 7 to 9 hours.
  • Teenagers, 14 to 17 years: 8 to 10 hours.
  • School-age children, 6 to 13 years: 9 to 11 hours.
  • Preschool children, 3 to 5 years: 10 to 13 hours.
  • Toddlers, 1 to 2 years: 11 to 14 hours.
  • Infants, 4 to 11 months: 12 to 15 hours.
  • Newborns, 0 to 3 months: 14 to 17 hours.

Doctors have also found evidence that genetic, behavioral and environmental factors help determine how much sleep you need for your best health and daily performance.

But a minimum of seven hours of sleep is a step in the right direction to improve your health, Dr. Drerup advises.

What happens when you don’t get enough sleep?

Your doctor urges you to get enough sleep for good reason, Dr. Drerup says. Shorting yourself on shut-eye has a negative impact on your health in many ways:

Short-term problems can include:

  • Lack of alertness. Even missing as little as 1.5 hours can have an impact on how you feel.
  • Excessive daytime sleepiness. It can make you very sleepy and tired during the day.
  • Impaired memory. Lack of sleep can affect your ability to think, remember and process information.
  • Relationship stress. It can make you feel moody and you can become more likely to have conflicts with others.
  • Quality of life. You may become less likely to participate in normal daily activities or to exercise.
  • Greater likelihood for car accidents. Drowsy driving accounts for thousands of crashes, injuries and fatalities each year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

If you continue operating without enough sleep, you may see more long-term and serious health problems. Some of the most serious potential problems associated with chronic sleep deprivation are high blood pressure, diabetes, heart attack, heart failure or stroke. Other potential problems include obesity, depression, reduced immune system function and lower sex drive.

Chronic sleep deprivation can even affect your appearance. Over time, it can lead to premature wrinkling and dark circles under your eyes. There’s also a link between lack of sleep and an increase in the amount of the stress hormone cortisol in your body. Cortisol can break down collagen, the protein that keeps skin smooth. In other words, a lack of sleep could mean more wrinkles!

How to sleep better

If you’re experiencing mild, occasional problems with sleep, try these simple strategies from Dr. Drerup.

1. Treat getting enough sleep as if it is as important as taking medicine

With all the demands on our time every day, you might put a good night’s rest at the bottom of your priority list. But Dr. Drerup says we need to schedule adequate time for sleep.

“It’s very easy to stay up late and burn the candle at both ends,” she says. “However, when you do that, you quickly run into a problem of dealing with sleep deprivation.”

2. Keep a consistent wake time

Wake up at the same time every day, including weekends or days off. Waking at the same time every day actually helps you sleep better at night. A fixed wake time helps build a strong desire for sleep throughout wakefulness. This sleep drive gradually builds, and shortening it by sleeping in will make it harder to fall asleep the next night. Sleeping in on the weekend makes it much more difficult to wake up earlier on Monday morning.  

It’s also important to do some relaxing activity, recommends Dr. Drerup, like taking a warm bath or reading a book before bedtime. By making these activities part of your bedtime ritual, you can train yourself to associate these activities with sleep. This association will help you move more easily into slumber.

3. Put away the smart phones and tablets

Electronic devices keep your mind humming — and far from the relaxed state you need to achieve before bedtime. Dr. Drerup advises it’s a good idea to put away devices like smart phones and tablets at least one hour before bedtime.

4. If you do wake up during the night, avoid looking at the clock

“The minute you look at that time it’s not just looking at one number,” Dr. Drerup says. “You start mental calculations, you think about how long it’s been since you’ve been in bed and what you have to do the next day. And before you know it, a long time has passed and that cuts into your sleep time.”

Make time for down time

“In our society, nowadays, people aren’t getting enough sleep. They put sleep so far down on their priority list because there are so many other things to do — family, personal stuff and work life,” Dr. Drerup notes. “These are challenges, but if people understand how important adequate sleep is, and how to sleep better, it makes a huge difference.”

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