How Sleep (and lack of it) Influences your Hormonal System

A good laugh and a long sleep are the best cures in the doctor's book.

- Irish proverb

Many of us often overlook the potential long-term side effects of insufficient sleep and the impact it can have on our overall productivity. Determining all the risks might be difficult, however, it is certain that sleep has an important role to play in your physical health. To discover its effects on your hormonal system, let’s first find out what the hormonal or endocrine system is:

Hormonal (Endocrine) System

People often use the term hormonal system for endocrine system - a collection of glands, which transfer information, and produce and discharge hormones in the blood circulatory system to coordinate functions of different parts of the body. While it is a complex biochemical process also known as endocrine signaling, the main glands that come under the endocrine system are Pineal, Pituitary, Pancreas, Ovaries, Testes, Thyroid, Parathyroid and Adrenal.

Some people confuse endocrine system with the exocrine system, which is hormonal secretion out of the body and not into the bloodstream. Examples of exocrine glands include salivary and sweat glands. Endocrinology is a sub-field of internal medicine that deals with the diagnosis and treatment of hormonal imbalances in adults.

Following are its salient features:

  • Ductless nature for secretion and circulation into the bloodstream
  • Intracellular vacuoles (sacks or granules) for storing hormones

Sleep and its Relation with Hormonal System

Sleep and hormonal system work hand in hand to repair the body’s wear and tear that it suffers during consciousness. Medical experts, after conducting various studies, have concluded that following functions tend to happen in the third stage of sleep (Slow Wave).

  • 90% cell growth
  • Tissue growth
  • Regeneration of brain
  • Development in overall body

This, however, does not mean that sleep is the only answer to better hormonal system functioning. It simply means uninterrupted sleeping hours are important.

Sleep itself is caused by the hormonal system. Pineal gland in the brain helps regulate sleep and wake cycles. It secretes melatonin hormone when a person is tired and results in drowsiness, sleep and Rapid Eye Movement (REM) - the last stage of sleep when one’s brain and body are energized and dreaming begins.

To assist this hormonal function, we have pons, a brainstem located in the upper region of the brain that transmits signals from the forebrain to the cerebellum along with nuclei that primarily deal with sleep, etc. The signals mobilize the body in the REM stage of sleep, letting the hormonal system repair your body as a whole.

Hence, one can conclude that lesser than recommended sleep time or interrupted sleeping pattern can have devastating effects on your hormonal system, and in turn affects the entire body.

Effects of Sleep Deprivation on Hormonal System

When a person forces oneself to stay awake for a prolonged period, hormones are the first things that get affected. Following are the physiological changes that begin to occur in a human body with disturbed hormonal system:

  • Increased cortisol levels: Cortisol receptors help control blood sugar level, assist with memory formulation and regulate metabolism, among other different functions. Elevated cortisol levels suppress immunity, reduce libido, and increase hypertension, etc.
  • Metabolism impairment: This results in weakening of the process of producing energy from the food you eat.

Hormone-related Disorders

The most common diseases found in people with disturbed hormonal system are:

  • Chronic illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease
  • Thyroid disease: Thyroid glands help maintain body metabolism
  • Children largely get affected by sleep deprivation or interruption. Their hormonal system undergoes changes, and symptoms like headaches, mood swings and lethargy, start appearing. These must be treated at the earliest possible stage.

Sleep Pattern

Sleep might seem like a normal process but is quite complex. It has five stages, which help maintain bodily health and sustained hormonal system functioning.

  • Stage 1: Light sleep: Person can drift in between drowsy and awakened state. Eyes and muscle activity slows down and the person experiences a sense of falling
  • Stage 2:  Movement of eyes halts and brain waves activity becomes active. Body temperature and heart rate also slow down, and the body prepares for Deep Sleep
  • Stage 3 & 4: The state of Deep Sleep: Sleep disorders such as sleepwalking and talking during one’s sleep occur during this stage. The brain emits delta waves in continued Deep Sleep state. It is difficult to wake up during this stage.
  • REM (Rapid Eye Movement): End of the sleep cycle: The brain starts to imitate the awakened state of the body. This includes rapid side to side movement of eyes while still being shut, and is the stage for lucid dreams.

The first four stages explained above are referred to as NREM (Non Rapid Eye Movement) sleep that makes up 75% of a person’s sleeping time. The REM sleep is the remaining 25%. Both the NREM and REM make up one complete sleep cycle, which is roughly estimated to be of about 90 minutes. In case of interruption during sleeping, the chain of NREM to REM is broken and the cycle starts again. This results in less chances of reaching the REM stage, which is necessary for the hormonal system to function properly. It provides energy to the body.

Scientific Study on the Effects of Sleep Deprivation

According to a study conducted by John Hopkins University School of Medicine, people who experience regular sleep deprivation and interruption are more prone to have mood swings, be less friendly, and have a lack of empathy and non-cognitive skills.

Causes of Sleep Interruption

  • Breathing
  • According to experts, a person’s sleeping and breathing patterns are inter-related. Normal breathing is carried out by nostrils and mouth but many people suffer from snoring disorder. Snoring occurs when a person breathes from their mouth while sleeping and the inhaled air is blocked by inflamed tonsils, soft uvula, excess of fleshy tissues, and apnea.

In Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA), the airway is blocked during sleep, and any air that passes the blockage causes loud snoring. Apnea patients are bound to have at least 30 episodes of stopped breathing in between sleeping cycles resulting in partial awakening. 

  • Technology

Most of us are in possession of smartphones, which emit blue light, thus affecting sleep-inducing hormone, melatonin. This leads to lesser and disruptive sleep cycle.

Treatment

If you cant sleep, then get up and do something instead of lying there worrying. Its the worry that gets you, not the lack of sleep. - Dale Carnegie

A person with long sleep deprivation history has a disturbed endocrine system which can be hard to heal by just altering the sleeping schedule. However, the condition can be halted rather than worsening it. In extreme cases, the person should visit a personal physician.

You know that sleep is significant for your health, productivity, and overall well-being. So, how do you make sure you get enough of it?

  • Alter sleep pattern
Early to rise and early to bed - Makes a man healthy and wealthy and dead. - James Thurber

Simply changing your sleep schedule can lead to effective treatment of your hormonal system. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in the US, about one-third of US workers get less than six hours of sleep. Medical professionals, however, have recommended at least 7 to 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep every night. Make sure you’re not among the many Americans who are sleep deprived!

  •  Exercise

Sleep is sweet to the labouring man. - John Bunyan

Exercise during the day helps use up energy that can interfere with your sleep schedule. The more tired your body feels at the end of the day, the more is the chance for you to experience uninterrupted sleeping cycle.

  •  Diet

Sleep till you're hungry, eat till you're sleepy. - Anonymous

Sleep and exercise are also affected by dietary changes. Intake of healthy foods such as fruits, vegetables, and protein-based diets can provide you energy to carry out the day to day functions, and fall asleep more soundly in the night.

  • Limit Use of Technology

People suffering from hormonal disorders or sleep deprivation must keep technology use to a bare minimum during daytime and none when they’re about to sleep. If you have to use your mobile device in the evening, add a filter or app that limits the emission of blue light.

(5) Stay Away from Sedatives

Approximately 50% of the US population is on prescription drugs and anti-depressants. Sedatives or drugs used for their calming and sleep-inducing effect are harmful to sleep cycle. Avoid taking these but if you’re dependent on them, scale back their use gradually.