Here’s what insomnia actually does to your body – and it’s pretty terrifying

Sleep, well-being and mental health are intrinsically linked. Yet insomnia is surprisingly common: 16 million of us suffer from insomnia, and the sleep industry is worth £ 100 billion. So what the hell do you do when you can’t get enough? Or worse yet, do you suffer from extreme insomnia?

This is exactly the situation journalist Miranda Levy found herself in. After a single catastrophic event, she had a sleepless night, then another, then another. She sought help from everyone she could: doctors, therapist, acupuncturist, hypnotist, reiki practitioner, and personal trainer – but nothing seemed to work.

So she decided to write a book about it, sharing her debilitating battle with insomnia and how she ultimately cured it. Half memory, half report, The Insomnia Diaries: How I Learned to Sleep Again promises to help anyone who is struggling to get a good night’s sleep – whether occasionally or all the time. – appreciate the problems and understand the options as they find their best way to get the rest they need. Here, Miranda shared a snippet with GLAMOR about insomnia and its real effects on your physical and mental health.

Insomnia affects your body

When people talk about insomnia, they usually refer to it as a symptom of a mental health problem. There is a lot of talk about anxiety and depression and so on. But we rarely dwell on the physical effects of insomnia.

Medical research – and my own personal experiences – confirms that the physical effects of insomnia, even short-lived, can be severe and debilitating. Insomnia is, in fact, linked to a wide variety of conditions, from obesity to type 2 diabetes and even Alzheimer’s disease.

The reasons were discussed in the May 2019 edition of the journal Experimental Psychology, with theories ranging from blood vessels littered with fatty deposits to “cellular garbage” in the brain. According to research, people who sleep less than seven hours a night have dramatically high levels of molecules called microRNAs, which suppress the protein content of cells and have previously been linked to inflammation and poor blood vessel health.


Partial sleep deprivation …

… is not as bad as the chronic type. This is when you get a little sleep, but not as much as you need to. Experts call this a “sleep debt”. After one night, you will feel tired, but you can normally do the next day’s activities. After two or three sleepless nights, you will start to feel exhausted and irritable. Your performance at work can be affected, in addition to headaches, slowed reactions, memory problems, and slowness. It is probably dangerous to drive.

Long-term partial sleep deprivation – while not as devastating as total insomnia – is still quite serious. It is also becoming more and more common as people use social media, online shopping, and 24/7 streaming services. In one study, researchers followed a group of volunteers who were only allowed to sleep four hours a night for six days at a trot. They developed higher blood pressure, higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and fewer antibodies in response to a flu shot. As a nod to long-term problems, they showed signs of insulin resistance, a precursor to type 2 diabetes. The good news is that students’ health has returned to normal after they got over their debt. sleep. But many adults with hectic work lives never really do, so that’s a caveat.

Chronic insomnia

Obviously, it would be inhumane for scientists to conduct a sleep deprivation study on a group of people for several years. But researchers have some idea of ​​the devastation inflicted by years of sleeplessness. Here are, in no particular order, some of the ways that prolonged insomnia can wreak havoc on your body.

Weight gain

Science: Not getting enough sleep makes you more likely to gain weight, according to an analysis of 36 studies, discussed in the journal Obesity. (Can you imagine working on the Obesity newspaper? Could block conversations at parties. Or start them.) Insomnia disrupts the production of ghrelin and leptin – the hormones that control hunger. So, you crave fatty, starchy, and sugary foods, potentially eating hundreds of extra calories per day in refined carbohydrates.

Daytime exhaustion means you can’t be bothered to exercise and your weight skyrockets, as does a stunt in other conditions like diabetes and heart disease, discussed below.

What happened to me: During the first six years of my Insomnia Crash, I would say I lost weight – via muscle tone and even bone density – although an initial test for the latter returned to normal. Then the numbers on the scale began to increase. For me, that was largely because I was eventually prescribed a drug called olanzapine. It’s actually an antipsychotic, a pill primarily used to manage psychosis – a set of symptoms that include delusions, hallucinations, and paranoia, common in people with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Olanzapine can also be used to ‘augment’ antidepressants. Guess the main side effect of olanzipine?

In addition to my chemically induced bloating, I was exhausted and miserable, my principles of healthy eating were long gone. A phobia of leaving home did not help with the exercise issues.

So, I got fat. As this book goes to press, I have been working (with some success) to shift those extra pounds.


The Science: A report published in the journal Diabetes Care found a significant increase in type 2 diabetes in people with chronic insomnia. Patients who suffered from poor sleep (less than five hours per night) for a year or more were three times more likely than those who slept six hours or more. As with obesity (also linked to type 2 diabetes), the underlying cause is believed to involve disruption of the body’s normal hormonal regulation, but in this case, it results from insufficient sleep.

What happened to me: During a few medical appointments, I was told that my blood sugar had increased (the word “diabetes” was never used and I never received any medicine). However, it was obvious that I needed to change my diet, and I always came up with the promise to do so before the nurse had a chance to mention it. My blood sugar is now within the normal range.

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Heart disease

In 2019, a major American university published a comprehensive report linking insomnia, high cholesterol, and blood pressure. People who don’t get enough sleep also have high levels of stress hormones and substances that indicate inflammation, a key cause of cardiovascular disease. And the boost: Less than four hours of sleep a night could double a woman’s risk of dying from heart disease.

What happened to me: My cholesterol level has reached a moderately severe level. Since I started to lose weight it got better, but still increased. My blood pressure has always been good.

Dementia / Alzheimer’s

Science: Current research indicates that insomnia increases the risk of Alzheimer’s. A Harvard Medical School report estimated that people with sleep disorders are nearly 1.7 times more likely to develop cognitive impairment than others. A scientific study was particularly terrifying. The author claimed that there was “preliminary evidence” that missing even a single night’s sleep could increase the levels of a brain protein involved in Alzheimer’s disease.

What happened to me: Sorry? What? Did you say something? My memory is not what it used to be. So Alzheimer’s is in the mail. Can this really be true? Other problems happened to me: a slight deficiency in iron, calcium and vitamin D. A blood test in eighth grade revealed some deficiencies. But the iron pills made me sick. A general practitioner friend told me that a diet with more red meat and spinach would be enough. The calcium / vitamin D tablets I was prescribed were like eating chalk. So my doctor friend told me that 1000 IU of vitamin D3 would be enough. I take vitamin D every day now and I feel better, in an indefinable way.

Viral infections

It is well known that sleep is necessary for a healthy immune system – the part of our constitution that attacks antigens, or foreign invaders, as well as “T cells”: white blood cells that destroy cells carrying viruses. . A study published in the Archives of International Medicine found that subjects who slept less than seven hours a night were three times more likely to catch a cold than those who had eight or more.

What happened to me: Fortunately, my Insomnia Crash was pre-Covid-19. I don’t remember having particularly had more colds – or even a single flu – but it was probably because I hadn’t left the house much and encountered so many germs.

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So, are all insomniacs doomed?

The problem is the lack of long-term studies following the same group of people. “All of these chronic diseases are multifactorial, so we need a lot of topics to rule out the impact of confounders,” says my sleep guru, Dr Sophie Bostock. “In short-term studies, generally healthy people recover after several days of adequate sleep.

“However, we need projects where we analyze the long-term impacts of improving sleep for people with insomnia. The good news is that this is starting to happen due to digital interventions like apps and online tools that are inherently scalable. ‘

And finally, maybe good news for those of us with children. “Parents have faced sleep loss for generations,” says Dr. Bostock. “There is no evidence that parents live shorter lives than those who do not have children. In fact, it is quite the opposite.

Here is literally EVERYTHING you ever needed to know about sleep (and how to get more from it).

The Insomnia Diaries: How I Learned to Sleep Again – Foreword from Dr Sophie Bostock by Miranda Levy is published by Aster, 9.99.

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