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The Frightening Effects of Chronic Insomnia

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Do you have trouble sleeping at night or don't have time to sleep? You'll want to make sure you sleep enough after reading about these harmful side effects of poor sleep habits.

Today, Americans are getting less sleep than ever. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), over 35 percent of Americans get fewer than 7 hours of sleep each night. According to the data, sleeping fewer than 7 hours a night lead to nodding off during the day, drowsy driving, and lowered performance at work. Poor sleep will not only cause ill effects for the next day, but some studies are now showing that chronic insomnia and fatigue have cumulative consequences.

In generations past, when the sun went down, humans went to bed. There was nothing in the night to keep a person awake, and there were few means to do so, as the light was limited during the evening hours. Ever since the introduction of electric lights, however, it has become possible for humans to remain awake at any hour they choose. Our society today is built around a 24-hour schedule. At any hour of the night, you can find food to eat, something to do, and something to watch. The Internet has made this problem even worse. Many online sites offer 24-hour updates. There is always one more story to look at or one more game to play online. This promotes chronic fatigue and shortens sleep time.

Many individuals engage in online activities or in watching television until the moment they fall asleep. These electrical hyperactivity signals can disrupt healthy sleep patterns and cause a person to suffer from insomnia. A 2011 study from the University of Basel showed that LED lights, and specifically blue lights, can suppress natural melatonin and sleepiness, preventing the desire for sleep at night.

In 2012, the American Medical Association stated, “exposure to excessive light at night, including extended use of various electronic media, can disrupt sleep or exacerbate sleep disorders.” Blue light is the worst offender, which comes from smartphones, computers, TVs, and even energy-saving lightbulbs. Our bodies associated blue light with daytime, according to Harvard Medical School, which triggers a response of wakefulness in the body. Exposure to blue light suppresses the production of the sleep hormone melatonin. What makes the current sleep issue worse is the proximity of the light to the face. The closer blue light is to the face, the more powerful its sleep-fighting effects, according to the book, "Sleep: A Very Short Introduction." More people than ever are using blue-light emitting devices well into the night. According to a Rosetta marketing consultants poll, over 68 percent of responders said they took their smart devices to bed with them. All of these activities contribute to chronic insomnia for over 41 million Americans.

Is Recovery from Poor Sleep Possible? 

If an electronic device is keeping you awake past midnight, but you still have to wake at 5 to get the kids off to school and to get to work on time, you will be in a state of chronic sleep deprivation. To address this issue, many Americans try to sleep in on the weekends to “catch up” on missed sleep. However, a new 2013 study published the American Journal of Physiology-Endocrinology and Metabolism showed that even sleeping in on the weekends is not enough to recover from chronic fatigue.

In the study 30 healthy men and women were studied for 13 nights. For 4 nights they established a baseline of sleep (8 hours), for 6 nights they were sleep-deprived (6 hours), and for 3 nights they engaged in recovery sleep (10 hours). The study found that while recovery sleep will reduce fatigue and stress levels, recovery sleep was not enough to improve performance for the next work week. This indicates that to increase performance at work, a healthy sleep pattern is necessary. Weekend recovery sleep will reduce stress and make a person feel less sleepy, but the ill effects of chronic fatigue will still be present.

Common Sleep Disruptors

Although catching up on sleep will help you recover from some of the ill effects of chronic fatigue, many people are unable to engage in sleep recovery at all. Parents, for example, still have to wake up with young children even on the weekends. Even parents of older children engage in poor sleep habits by choosing to stay awake for a few hours after children go to bed. This time, although peaceful, is disruptive to healthy sleep patterns. Other sleep disruptions include late-night television programs, Internet news, social media, online shopping, and computer or video games. The current global culture considers the phrase, “sleep when you’re dead” as its mantra.

Damaging Effects of Chronic Insomnia

Of course, all this lack in sleep is catching up with us. A shortage in sleep leads to cranky, sleepy people who are at risk for a host of unfavorable and unhealthy conditions. A 2013 study from the University of Surrey’s Sleep Research Centre uncovered that as little as one sleep-deprived week of fewer than 6 hours of sleep each night, led to altered gene activity for over 700 genes. These genes are linked to controlling inflammation, the immune system, and our response to stress, among other things. Previous studies by the Sleep Research Centre found that by increasing sleep from 6.5 to 7.5 hours a night, the risk of diabetes, inflammation, and cancer dropped. These are not the only ill effects of insomnia on the body. Take a look at these startling results from studies from around the world:


A 19-year study conducted by the Wisconsin Sleep Cohort and concluded in 2010 showed that chronic insomnia leads to an increase in death. For individuals with chronic insomnia, they had a risk of death that was three times that of individuals who did not suffer from insomnia. In over 2,200 participants, individuals with early-awakening insomnia or difficulty in getting back to sleep had the highest risk of death. At the end of the study, 128 of the original patients had died.


Insomnia interferes with the natural circadian rhythm of the body (the natural sleep/wake cycle). A 2006 study from the University of Washington showed that disruptions in circadian rhythm can influence cancer progression and increase cancer risk. The study found that women who were night-shift workers had an increased risk of breast cancer and decreased nocturnal urinary levels of 6-sulphatoxymelatonin, which can also increase cancer risk. Exposure to light at night can interfere with hormone functions, such as the production of melatonin, which is only produced at night. Melatonin helps suppress free radicals in the body and slows the production of estrogen, which is linked with the development of some forms of cancer, including breast cancer.


Usually we think of the consumption of sugar leading to diabetes the fastest, but other factors are also at play. According to a 2011 study from the University of Chicago, insulin resistance was linked to insomnia in diabetic patients.


A 1997 study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology showed that insomnia can lead to depression in men. Young men with insomnia were twice as likely to reach clinical depression status within 30 years.

Weight Gain

Weight gain is also linked to chronic insomnia and sleep problems. A 2011 study published in the International Journal of Obesity showed that participants were able to lose 10 pounds when they slept between 6 and 8 hours a night. Participants who cut back on screen time, stressful activities, and got enough sleep were able to lose at least 10 pounds over a period of 6 months. According to the American Heart Association, sleep-deprived people consume on average, about 300 additional calories a day, usually from junk food. When the body is sleep-deprived, leptin levels fall and ghrelin levels rise. Leptin is responsible for triggering a “full” feeling, and ghrelin signals hunger. The theory is that when the body does not get fuel from the sleep it requires, it looks for energy sources from other places, namely glucose from foods with high sugar content. Combine sugar cravings with a lack of fullness, and it is easy to see how lack of sleep leads to weight gain.

Heart Problems

A 2008 study from the University of Chicago indicated that lack of sleep can lead to heart problems. In a group of 495 participants, 27 percent of individuals sleeping fewer than five hours a night had plaque in their heart vessels. A build-up of plaque can lead to heart attacks and strokes. Only 6 percent of individuals sleeping for more than seven hours a night showed a build-up of plaque in the heart.

Lowered Immunity

Getting enough sleep leads to a healthy immune system. A 2009 study from the Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh infected 150 poor sleepers with a common cold virus. The researchers then looked at the infected persons to identify their body’s response to the illness. 90 percent of the patients were infected with the virus. However, only 35 percent showed cold symptoms. Participants who slept fewer than 7 hours a night were three times more likely to show cold symptoms. Individuals who were awake for about 8 percent of the time they were supposed to be sleeping were 5.5 times more likely to show cold symptoms. This study indicates that sleep is necessary for proper immune function.

Am I Getting Enough Sleep?

Although the typical advice is to get 8 hours of sleep each day, some people are able to function on less without ill side effects. Each person has individual sleep needs. The best way to determine if you are getting enough sleep is if you feel well-rested throughout the day. If you have difficulty waking up in the morning, and need wake-aids, like an alarm clock, cold splash of water in your face, or coffee, then you are probably not sleeping enough. You are also not sleeping enough if you feel tired during the day or find yourself yawning or nodding off throughout the day.

How much sleep you need will change at different times. Pregnant women, sick people, and stressed individuals require more sleep. The best way to set up effective sleep habits is to create a consistent sleep routine. Think about a small child who goes to bed at the same time every night and wakes at the same time each morning on her own. Most children wake at the same time each morning because they have a sleep routine that their body is used to. If you do not wake at the same time each morning and go to bed at the same time each night, then you are not setting up healthy sleep habits and you are probably suffering from sleep deprivation.

The best way to ensure that you have enough sleep each day is to create a schedule for sleeping at least 7 hours a night. This will help you find your ideal sleep habits and you can go from there to determine exactly how much you should sleep a night.

Finding Your Basal Sleep Needs

According to the National Sleep Foundation, you have a basal sleep need. Your basal sleep need is the amount of sleep you need for optimal performance. You also have a sleep debt, which is how much sleep you have lost due to poor sleeping habits, illness, stress, environmental factors, and anything else that disrupts your sleep. The National Sleep Foundation recommends that most adults sleep between 7 and 8 hours a night. However, if you have a high sleep debt, you will still be tired after sleeping for eight hours.

You can tell if you have a sleep debt by when you get tired during the day. If you feel tired in mid-afternoon, then you probably have a sleep debt and should try to increase your sleep hours for a few weeks until you can make it through the day with enough energy. The key is to establish healthy sleep patterns that are consistent. You may have to have several weeks of 9 or 10 hours of sleep each night before your body recovers from its previous sleep debt. When you awake fully refreshed before your alarm goes off in the morning, then you have fulfilled your sleep debt and can start cutting back on hours. However, if you stop feeling energized throughout the day, then you need to add extra sleep to your routine to find the ideal sleep-hour balance.

Promote Healthy Sleep

You can promote healthy sleep by engaging in a variety of sleep-inducing activities at night.

Sleep-Promoting Activities

Create a routine: You should have a bedtime routine that promotes sleep. Try to avoid electronics for at least 30 minutes to an hour before your bedtime. Create a consistent bedtime that you stick to every night, even on weekends, if possible. Try engaging in sleep-promoting activities before bed, like taking a warm bath, drinking hot tea, reading a paper book, and turning the lights down low.

Make your room conducive to sleep: Make sure there are no blue-emitting lights in your bedroom and place your cell phone and alarm clock out of sight. Consider adding room-darkening curtains to your bedroom windows to block out light from the outdoors. Replace any blue lights with amber-colored lights that promote sleep.

Keep cool: A cooler room will help you sleep better. The ideal sleeping temperature is between 60 and 68 degrees according to a 1994 French study published in Presse Med.. Your body naturally lowers its temperature during sleep, which is why some researchers believe that a lower room temperature will promote healthy sleep habits.

Exercise: A lack of activity during the day may lead to insomnia at night. Try to exercise for at least 30 minutes a day to promote healthy sleep habits. Exercise helps relieve depression and remove stress, which are also causes of insomnia.

Do I Need Sleep Supplements?

If you suffer from chronic insomnia, supplements may help you sleep better at night. However, there is no need to resort to supplements at first. Before you try any supplements, try the steps outlined in this article. It could be that your sleep problems are influenced by too much stimulation, a lack of schedule, or other sleep-disruptors. However, if you have tried the above steps and still have trouble sleeping at night, some supplements might be able to help you sleep better at night. If you still suffer from chronic insomnia, supplements that might help include:

  • B vitamins: B vitamins are essential to our health. B vitamins are present in large quantities in dairy products. This may be why a glass of warm milk is prescribed as a remedy for insomnia. B vitamin deficiencies can lead to restless leg syndrome, insomnia, depression, and irritability.
  • Magnesium: A magnesium deficiency can lead to issues including restless leg syndrome, irritability, anxiety, and insomnia. Magnesium can be taken in pill form or absorbed into the skin, such as with an Epsom salt bath.
  • Lemon balm: Lemon balm is often added to night-tea blends because of its soothing properties. Lemon balm can reduce stress, improve mood, and has a mild sedative effect.
  • Chamomile: Chamomile tea is known for its sleep-inducing properties. Chamomile will relieve anxiety and have a mild sedative effect. Pregnant women are advised to avoid chamomile as it could cause uterine contractions.
  • Valerian: Valerian is an herb with a mild sedative effect. It can also help relieve anxiety, reduce stress, and relieve tension headaches.

Stopping Insomnia and Promoting Healthy Sleep

It is clear that sleep is important for the health of the body. Sleep may be just as important as other factors like a healthy diet and exercise for improving a person’s health. It is important to get enough sleep to fight off illnesses and restore healthy hormone production in the body. You can do this by creating a sleep-inducing routine and environment at the end of every day and by taking additional supplements, if necessary, to improve your sleep.





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