How a lack of sleep can affect your body and mind

24 Jul 2020
By Sharna Y, Student at De Montfort University

Student life can sometimes be known for its late nights – whether it’s partying until dawn or studying instead of sleeping.

Yet, the average adult needs between seven and nine hours of sleep per night in order to function. Otherwise, our bodies and minds can be affected badly.

But just what impact will a lack of sleep have? And what can you do to make sure you get the amount of sleep you need? I’ve been on a mission to find out. Here’s what I discovered.

How is the body affected?

When we haven’t slept enough, we’re less likely to fight off sickness, as the cells in our immune system cannot function properly. This means that we are more likely to get ill with a cold or flu. 

For university students, who are around a lot of people (and their germs), this can mean we’re more likely to be sick and may take a longer amount of time to recover when we don’t sleep enough.

Another short-term effect could be weight gain, as the signals in our brain that tell us we’re full are unable to work. This means we overeat, as we don’t know when we are full.

Lack of sleep can have long-term impacts too. It has the potential to increase blood pressure, leading to a risk of diabetes and heart disease, and can also drop testosterone, causing low sex drive. 

How is the mind affected?

Our brain is dependent on a good night’s rest so that our brain cells are able to communicate with the rest of the body and send signals to help us understand the world around us. When we don’t get enough sleep, our brain cells slow down, meaning we can’t quickly react to situations and are more likely to have accidents.

It’s also harder to recall old information when we have less sleep, as any new information we get during the day is usually kept in the mind while we are sleeping. If our sleep cycles (which help keep information) can’t do their job, we can’t remember what we have learned – which is not good during exam season. 

Another big effect from lack of sleep is the impact it can have on our mood. We’re more likely to be in a bad mood when we’re tired. This is because a part of the brain called the amygdala, which makes us feel negative emotions, is more active when you don’t get enough sleep. This can make you feel angry, irritable or sad after a sleepless night, and may make existing mental health problems worse.

How do we get a better night’s sleep?

Aiming for eight hours of sleep is ideal for our bodies and minds, but it can sometimes be difficult to get into bed on time when we have busy social lives or essay deadlines. However, there are some ways we can help our bodies start to get into the swing of a good night’s sleep.

Setting a sleep schedule can train your body into getting tired at a certain time every night. It may take a while to get into the schedule, but making sure you’re regularly sitting in bed and relaxing by the same time will train your body to rest and sleep. To fully get into a sleep schedule, you’ll need to stick to it every night.

Another way to get your mind to rest is to switch off your phone and other screens at least an hour before bed. The ‘blue light’ from screens keeps your brain awake, as it tricks it into thinking it’s daytime. Removing the light and reading a book or listening to music instead can help your mind wind down.

Keeping yourself relaxed before bed can also help you get to sleep better. By getting comfortable with a warm drink, pyjamas and low light, you will feel ready for sleep in no time. Exercising regularly in the day can help too, as it allows you to burn off a lot of your energy.

It’s good to avoid anything before bed that isn’t relaxing, such as studying, which will keep your mind awake, and drinking alcohol, which can disrupt sleep. Smoking cigarettes, which contain nicotine, can also keep you awake because nicotine is a stimulant. 

Ultimately, there are a lot of different things you can do to try and improve your sleep (here are 29 ideas!), but you need to find out what works for you. The only way to do that is trial and error. This is a journey that you need to take yourself. Good luck!

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I'm a film studies student in Leicester who enjoys writing.