Millions of people treat sleep as a mere secondary priority. If they have a lot of work to do, or if they have an exciting television show to finish, they’re more than willing to sacrifice a few hours of sleep in pursuit of their more important goals.
We’ve all had nights of limited or nonexistent sleep. But just how bad is an unhealthy sleep pattern for your long-term health?
Healthy vs. Unhealthy Sleep
First, let’s establish the differences between healthy and unhealthy sleep patterns.
Generally, there’s nothing wrong with occasional sleep issues. No matter how much you prioritize sleep, you’re bound to have a restless night every now and then. The real problem occurs when your unhealthy sleep becomes a repetitive, consistent habit.
The most important unhealthy sleep habits are related to two main issues: not getting enough hours of sleep and not getting restful sleep. If you don’t get the full 7 to 9 hours of nightly sleep recommended for most adults, you can start to experience the effects of sleep deprivation on a chronic level. If you do get the full recommended hours of sleep, but those hours are full of restlessness and poor sleep quality, you may still suffer from sleep deprivation.
The Effects of Poor Sleep
So what are the effects of an unhealthy sleep pattern?
These are just some of the most notable health issues you may notice:
- Cognitive impairment. When you wake up after just a few hours of sleep, you can immediately feel the effects of cognitive impairment. You’ll likely find it harder to pay attention to your surroundings or focus on your work, and you may have more trouble thinking through complex problems. If you’re attending classes or meetings, you’ll be less likely to get value out of these events.
- Fatigue and feelings of unwellness. Going without sleep leaves you feeling tired, and if you’re chronically sleep deprived, you may begin to feel generally unwell. Fatigue sets in after even a single night of poor sleep, and it gets worse with repetition.
- Memory issues. Sleep deprivation also interferes with your memory. You’ll find it harder to form new memories and harder to recall old ones. This is likely to be a problem no matter what your job is or what your other responsibilities are.
- Mood swings. People with unhealthy sleep patterns are more likely to suffer from mood swings and irritability. One moment, you may feel fine, and the next, you may snap at someone close to you.
- A weaker immune system. Sleep deprivation weakens your immune system, making it harder for you to resist infections. Even everyday illnesses like the common cold spread faster and can be more intense when you experience them.
- Weight gain, high blood pressure, diabetes, and more. Chronic lack of sleep is also associated with a host of risks like weight gain, high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes.
- Dementia. Poor sleep may even increase your risk of dementia. If you want to avoid cognitive decline in the long term, healthy sleep is an absolute necessity.
Fixing Unhealthy Sleep Patterns
Fortunately, it’s relatively easy to fix most unhealthy sleep patterns.
- Create a better environment. First, try to create a better sleeping environment for yourself. Ideally, you’ll sleep in an area that’s dark and quiet, hovering at an ideal temperature for your personal preferences. Depending on your current situation, it may benefit you to invest in a new bed, new pillows, or other accessories (like a white noise machine).
- Schedule a full 7-9 hours. You’ll be much more likely to get an adequate amount of sleep if you schedule it the way you schedule other priorities in your life. Aim to get at least 7 hours every night, even if that means sacrificing something else.
- Practice healthy habits during the day. Many healthy habits lend themselves to healthier sleep patterns, like drinking plenty of water, getting daily physical exercise, and eating a balanced diet.
- Avoid problematic substances. Some substances make it much harder to fall asleep or stay asleep. For example, caffeine can keep you up at night if you drink it too late in the day and alcohol can disrupt your normal sleep patterns.
- Wind down with a calming ritual. Try to follow the same ritual at the end of each day to wind down and prepare to sleep. Drinking herbal tea, reading a book, or taking a bath are just a few ideas to get you started here.
The majority of people can clean up their sleeping habits and move to a more consistent, healthier sleep schedule by following these core tenets. If you’re still struggling after making meaningful, significant changes to your life, consider visiting an urgent care facility and talking to your doctor about a more intensive solution. You may qualify for a prescription sleep aid – or your doctor may have other recommendations.
I’m a single mother of 2 living in Utah writing about startups, business, marketing, entrepreneurship, and health. I also write for Inc, Score, Manta, and Newsblaze