Sleep Deprivation and its Effects on the Body by Clair Whiteman Nutritionist/Technical Advisor for Biogenesis Nutraceuticals

Sleep, like proper nutrition, is an important component of maintaining overall health. Unfortunately, sleep disorders and sleep deprivation are becoming common health issues among the American public. The US Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that nearly 25% of Americans report occasional sleep difficulties, with 10% meeting the criteria for insomnia. In addition, the amount of nightly sleep that the average American reports has declined steadily from 8.0-8.9 hours in the 1960s to 6.9-7 hours in present day. Similar to dietary deficiencies, lack of sleep can have systemic adverse health effects that can impair both physical and mental function. Fortunately, lifestyle changes and numerous natural therapies have been shown to be safe and effective for supporting regular and healthy sleep behavior. Sleep is stimulated by the pineal gland’s release of melatonin, a hormone endogenously precursed by serotonin and 5-hydroxytryptophan.

Normal sleep progresses through four stages which are differentiated into non-rapid eye movement sleep (NREM1, NREM2, and NREM3) and rapid eye movement sleep (REM). These stages of sleep are distinguished by changes in brain waves and body muscular activity. Of significant clinical importance is REM sleep, which accounts for 20-25% of total sleep and is characterized by frequent movement of the eye muscles, body muscle relaxation, irregular breathing, and vivid dreaming. It is theorized that consolidation and organization of memories occurs during REM sleep, indicating that adequate REM is essential for normal cognitive function. Lack of REM sleep early in life has been linked to impaired cognitive development and behavior problems. Short-term sleep deprivation can also have severe implications on mental capabilities, and an average of seven to eight hours a night is recommended to maintain optimum cognitive function.

Contrary to popular belief, sleep is not only essential for proper mental activity. Lack of sleep can impact the endocrine system resulting in impairments in tissue repair and body mass maintenance. The “master” endocrine organ, the pituitary gland, is markedly influenced by sleep. As a result, sleep deprivation can have systemic effects on endocrine activity as the pituitary gland is responsible for signaling systems that control and regulate all peripheral endocrine glands. Human growth hormone (hGH) is secreted by the anterior pituitary and plays a large role in regeneration of tissues and maintaining lean body mass. Normal secretion of hGH occurs in discreet pulses, with a large surge occurring about ½ hour after the onset of night time sleep. Sleep deprivation can therefore interfere with normal growth hormone secretion and impair tissue maintenance mechanisms. Sleep deprivation may also impact regular thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) levels, which could have systemic effects on normal metabolic processes.

The major metabolic implications of sleep deprivation have been shown within the hypothalamic maintenance of appetite. Ghrelin is a peptide hormone secreted by the stomach to stimulate hunger while its counter-regulator,leptin, is released by adipose cells to induce satiety and appetite suppression. The interrelationship between these two hormonal signaling methods is essential for body mass maintenance and has become a focal point of preliminary therapies targeted toward reducing obesity. In sleep-deprived individuals, leptin has been shown to be markedly decreased despite normal caloric intake and physical activity. As a result, the body has difficultly in achieving a state of fullness and satisfaction from normal food intake. Elevated levels of ghrelin were also seen in conjunction with reduced leptin, indicating that sleep deprivation may also lead to an increase in appetite. This inability to accurately gauge caloric need can lead to severe impairments in the body’s natural weight control pathways.

In addition to promoting weight gain, recurrent sleep loss may also affect blood sugar metabolism. In an observation of young healthy subjects, six days of sleep restriction (four hours per night) resulted in high postprandial glucose levels and impaired response to intravenous glucose tolerance testing. Likewise, in observations of populations with insulin insensitivity, patients who reported sleeping less than seven hours per night were more likely to express symptoms of insulin resistance or type 2 diabetes. Although the mechanisms by which sleep interferes with glucose tolerance are not entirely clear, it is believed to be due to changes in sympathetic nervous system activity and alterations in hGH and cortisol.

The systemic health effects of sleep deprivation make emphasizing healthy sleep habits an important role of health practitioners. Much of the allopathic medical community sees sleep medications as the primary solution to sleep disorders. However, because sleep disruptions can have a variety of causes, effective therapies should be targeted towards the patient’s specific needs. Some sleep disruptions are due to the consumption of certain substances known to disturb sleep, such as caffeine or alcohol. In these cases, removal of the offending item may be a simple and effective way to manage the condition. Inactivity has also been linked to poor sleep, and these patients may experience relief upon adoption of a regular exercise routine.

Unfortunately, sleep problems are more commonly due to deep underlying emotional issues. Stress, anxiety, and depression may all result in sleep difficulties, indicating the need for therapies that focus on stress reduction. Along with providing emotional support, you may encourage patients to create a sleeping environment that supports rest and relaxation. Sleeping areas should be calming and cleared from clutter and external stressors. Pleasant images of loved ones or appealing scenery along with aromas such as candles can create a relaxing and comfortable atmosphere. You may also reduce your exposure to bright lights. Melatonin, the hormone that induces sleep, is released in response to darkness. It is believed that overexposure to artificial lighting may disrupt this natural regulatory process, resulting in the high incidence of sleep disorders now seen in the industrialized world. Prior to sleep, patients should reside in a darkened or dimly lit area and avoid distractions such as watching television. Nutritional support for sleep involves supporting the endogenous pathways that facilitate sleep and relaxation. The amino acid tryptophan is the nutritional precursor to both serotonin and melatonin and may help induce pleasant and sedating effects. When tryptophan intake is coupled with carbohydrates, rising insulin levels allow more tryptophan to enter the brain to further stimulate these agreeable results.

Foods that contain a healthy supply of tryptophan and carbohydrates include chocolate, nuts and seeds (almond, walnut, sunflower, sesame), and legumes. Regularly consuming these foods 30-60 minutes before bedtime may assist the body in achieving normal sleep patterns. In addition to nutritional support, many herbs and botanicals such as valerian, poppy, and hops have been shown to support relaxation.

The multiple implications of sleep deprivation are just another example of the powerful connection between mental wellbeing and physical health.


Cauter,, E. et al. The Impact of Sleep Deprivation on Hormones and Metabolism.

Neurology & Neurosurgery Insomnia and Sleep Health Expert Column.

Y. TakahashiJ Clin Invest. Growth hormone secretion during sleep 1968 September; 47(9): 2079–2090.

Mostaghim L., et al. Effects of sleep deprivation on wound healing. J Sleep Res. 2005 Sep; 14(3): 213-9

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