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How to Damage Your Health by Building Your Sleep Debt

Neuroaffect Circuit

By: Michael Lam, MD, MPH; Carrie Lam, MD; Jeremy Lam, MD

Do you get enough sleep? As stress levels rise in the modern world, the amount of sleep that most people get is dropping. Unfortunately, you can’t skip sleeping or sleep less than you need without consequences. If you don’t get enough sleep then the deprivation builds up and must be repaid. This creates what’s known as a sleep debt and is the cause or a contributing cause of a huge range of problems and disorders. So, if you don’t sleep as much as you need to, here’s what you can expect.

What is a Sleep Debt?

Sleep is absolutely essential for your health. When you sleep, your body heals the damage from the day, and your brain catalogs all the new information you collected. When this restorative period is interrupted or shortened, the results can be catastrophic. That’s why you should never listen to anyone who tells you to optimize your sleep and sleep less, to be more productive in life in general. Most people need around 7.1 hours of sleep every night, though this amount will vary from person to person.

If you sleep poorly one night, then you can sleep extra the next night to make up for it. However, this isn’t as good as sleeping well in the first place. Studies have shown that your body can take up to 4 days to recover from a single hour of missed sleep. And if you regularly sleep poorly, the results will be even more serious.

If you’re like many people in the modern world, then you may have poor sleeping patterns. Poor sleep seems to be one of the most common complaints in the modern world. This means that you may be walking around with sleep debt, which means that you basically ‘owe’ your body more sleep. As time goes on and your sleep debt becomes more severe, it will become harder and harder to catch up on the sleep your body needs. This will increase your chances of experiencing sleep deprivation symptoms and problems associated with poor sleep.

Some causes of poor sleep include:

How Your Sleep Debt Impacts Adrenal Fatigue

Inadequate sleep is an obvious cause of stress, which makes it strongly connected to AFS. When you lose sleep on an ongoing basis, it will naturally increase your cortisol levels. Cortisol is known as the stress hormone and it’s produced by the adrenal glands. This is the fight or flight hormone that makes your body awake, alert, and prepared for a crisis. But when your cortisol levels are unusually high over a long period, it will unbalance every circuit in your body.

The adrenal glands are part of your NeuroEndoMetabolic (NEM) stress response. This is the system that activates during high-stress periods. Unfortunately, because modern life seems to be full of small stressors that last over the long term, this system is overactive in many people. And because the NEM stress response causes changes throughout the body, this unnatural level of activity can cause malfunctions and imbalances in every system. This is what occurs when you have AFS. Body wide malfunctions and adrenal fatigue can cause very serious symptoms and disorders, eventually leading to full body breakdown if the situation isn’t corrected.

What this means is that your sleep debt could bring on or exacerbate your AFS. And this could lead to a very dangerous situation.

Sleep Debt and the Neuroaffect Circuit

The Neuroaffect Circuit is directly impacted when you don’t sleep enough. This circuit is part of the NEM stress response and consists of the autonomic nervous system (ANS), brain, and the microbiome or bacterial balance in the body. Lack of sleep will unbalance these three components and cause more stress, worsening your AFS. And AFS in turn will cause changes that negatively impact your sleeping patterns. This is a vicious circle that can be hard to break.

The three components in this circuit are tightly connected, so as the health of one decreases the others will be affected as well. When you have AFS, the ANS is constantly active, keeping you on edge and prepared to face a threat. Chemicals are released into your body that increases alertness and activation. In normal circumstances, the stress would pass, and the levels of these chemicals would go down again. But when you have AFS, they remain high, making it hard for you to sleep. This sleep deprivation increases your stress levels and starts the cycle over again.

The microbiome and the brain will both be impacted by the overactivation of the ANS, by the imbalances in the circuit, and by the sleep debt. Lack of sleep will decrease mental clarity, memory, and cognitive functioning. High levels of stress hormones will also impact the functioning of the brain, particularly when hormone levels remain high over an unnaturally long period of time.

The gut will be impacted by high inflammation levels, affecting the bacterial balance in a negative way. And as the health of the microbiome declines, it will affect the brain and the ANS, worsening circuit imbalances, AFS, and further impeding your ability to sleep. This is a vicious circle that can be very frightening and bad for your overall health.

More Dangers Associated with Sleep Debt

Building a sleep debt will have a very negative effect on your general health as well as on your Neuroaffect Circuit and more specific functions and organs in your body. Some diseases and problems associated with it include:

  • An increased risk of accidents at work and in the home.
  • An increased risk of traffic accidents.
  • Diabetes
  • A weakened immune system
  • Depression
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Excessive anger
  • High blood pressure
  • Diminished cognitive processes including alertness, critical thinking, and problem solving.
  • Heart disease and heart attack
  • Stroke
  • Diminished sex drive
  • Poor memory
  • Advanced aging
  • Increased weight gain

Sleep Debt and Obesity

Obesity in Sleep DebtThe link between sleep debt and obesity is just starting to become clear. Over the last few years, adults and children have been sleeping less and less. And obesity rates have risen dramatically over the same time period in these age groups. Diet and lifestyle have an obvious role in this change. But they don’t fully explain the extent of the problems.

The trend for less sleep is emerging as a possible contributing cause to the obesity epidemic in today’s society. It causes a range of problems that may contribute to obesity such as:

Increased Appetite

Studies have shown that sleep deprivation causes low leptin levels. Leptin is a hormone that influences your feelings of satiety. High levels inhibit your appetite and low levels make you feel hungry. Studies have shown that leptin levels are remarkably sensitive to sleep deprivation. In fact, leptin levels are 19% lower on average when study subjects only had 4 hours of sleep compared to their preferred sleep duration.

Sleep deprivation also proved to affect leptin acrophase or the peaks and crests of leptin release. Participants in studies who sleep only 4 hours experienced a peak 2 hours early than normal. That peak was also 26% lower than usual. Even more significantly, these results occurred regardless of actual calorie intake during the day. This means that sleep debt will make you feel hungrier even though you probably won’t need the extra calories.

High cortisol levels, associated with stress, may also lower leptin levels. In fact, leptin and cortisol usually exist in an inverse relationship, with high leptin levels associated with low cortisol levels. When you’re sleep-deprived, this is a problem. If your cortisol levels remain high, then it will depress leptin levels and cause increased feelings of hunger.

Decreased Glucose Tolerance

Sleep debt also seems to cause up to a 40% decrease in glucose tolerance. This signals that your body is having trouble handling glucose. People who have low tolerance usually experience a sharper than normal spike in blood glucose levels after eating. These levels are also slower to come back down to normal in people who experience this issue.

Low glucose intolerance is one metabolic alteration that’s associated with sleep deprivation. It also can be a warning of reduced insulin sensitivity in the future. These two issues combined are a marker of increased diabetes risk and will radically increase your risk of weight gain and obesity.

Increased Ghrelin Levels

Ghrelin is a hormone that’s produced by the stomach walls and acts independently to leptin despite its similar functions. When the body releases ghrelin, it stimulates the appetite. Studies have shown that sleep deprivation increases ghrelin levels, which may further stimulate your appetite. Significantly, it the ration of leptin to ghrelin also changes, which may contribute to further changes in appetite and feelings of hunger.

Researchers in the study on ghrelin levels also noted that participants particularly craved foods with high carbohydrate levels. This suggests that, when sleep-deprived, the brain may crave glucose above everything. This makes sense as glucose is the brain’s primary source of fuel.

Sleep Deprivation Changes and the NeuroAffect Circuit

The specific changes brought about by a building sleep debt will have some very harmful effects on the health and balance of the NeuroAffect Circuit. As sleep deprivation sets in, the brain will start to crave carbohydrates so it can get the glucose it needs. Leptin and ghrelin levels will rise, increasing your hunger at the same time. For many people, this means that you will start eating more food. And if you give in to your cravings and eat more carbohydrates, it will unbalance the NeuroAffect Circuit even further.

Carbohydrates aren’t good for your microbiome, particularly if you’re choosing simple or processed food sources. The increase in carbohydrate intake will decrease the health of your microbiome and increase the number of bad bacteria. This will add to any bacterial imbalances you already have because of poor lifestyle or dietary choices. And this could exacerbate or bring on AFS.

The interconnection between the three components of the NeuroAffect Circuit means that the health of the brain and the ANS will decrease as the health of your microbiome does. This will probably worsen your sleeping problems and your AFS at the same time.

As with many issues with AFS, this can be a vicious circle. And it’s one that’s difficult to break out of if you don’t have the help of a trained medical professional who’s aware of AFS and the impact it can have on the body.

How to Repay your Sleep Debt

You can’t skip out on your sleep debt. If you aren’t sleeping as much as you need to, then it there will be consequences. It will affect your mental, physical, and emotional health, sometimes in unexpected ways. If you struggle with sleep, then here’s what you should do:

  1. Track your sleeping patterns so you can see the problem clearly.
  2. Try some strategies to improve your sleep such as cutting down on electronics, reducing stress, and eliminating caffeine from your diet.
  3. Try not to eat too many carbohydrates in response to sleep deprivation and increased appetite.
  4. Talk to a medical professional about your sleeping issues and what you can do about them.

If your sleeping patterns need work, then get expert help from our team by clicking here or give us a call on (626) 571 1234.

© Copyright 2021 Michael Lam, M.D. All Rights Reserved.

Dr. Lam's Key Question

You probably know that sleep is essential, but did you know that you need a certain amount to stay healthy? Everyone’s body has its own rhythms, and if you don’t get the right amount of sleep you will build a sleep debt that has to be repaid.

© Copyright 2001-2021 Michael Lam, M.D. All Rights Reserved.
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