How Important Is Sleep, Really?

With the Red Sox in the playoffs throughout the month of October, I spent many nights up way past my bedtime. Most of the games went until about midnight, when my normal sleep time is at around 10-10:30 pm, as I generally get up anywhere between 5:30 and 6:30 am Monday-Friday. Mixed in with all of these late night games were some mid-week nights out with friends, some earlier-than-normal workouts (a 5 am stadium day, anyone?), and I experienced the perfect recipe for sleep deprivation. It didn’t help that many of the late-night Sox games fell the night before a 7 am call time at work.

In fact, as I write this, I’m yawning and bleary eyed from yet another night of inadequate sleep.

But how important is sleep, really? How much can a couple weeks of decreased sleep time affect your daily life? The answer: a lot.

The following are six of the ways that sleep deprivation turned me into a stupid, irrational, weak blubbering idiot for about two weeks. And if you’re not careful about your own sleep hygiene, you could end up just like me.

1. It drastically affects your mood.  When I haven’t had enough sleep, I can cry at the drop of a hat (seriously, if someone looks at me wrong, I’ll probably tear up). And although this sounds extreme, it’s really not. Studies have shown that a lack of sleep reduces emotional stability, increasing levels of stress, frustration, anger, irritability, and worry. And if turning into a worrisome, blubbering mess isn’t enough…

2. Physical performance suffersStudies have shown that when student athletes are sleep deprived, their performance suffers. On the other hand, when male basketball players had 10 hours of sleep for several consecutive nights, not only did their sprint speed improve, but their shooting skills did as well. No, we’re not all college basketball players, but we all do need adequate reaction time and coordination in real life. At the risk of sounding totally dramatic, when you’re pulling up to an intersection and some jackass flies through his red light, a millisecond quicker reaction time can mean the difference between life and death.  So, truthfully, did you get enough sleep last night?

3. It turns your brain into a “messy library”. When we are asleep, this is the time that our brains complete neural pathways of memories and experiences.  In essence, this is the time when our brains organize and file information. One article I read gives an excellent explanation of what happens to our brain when we don’t allow it enough processing time — “Without sleep, our brains would function like en enormous library where books are not found on shelves but rather strewn recklessly all over the floor”. [Source] Now, I don’t know about you, but I like my books on shelves where I can find them, thank you very much. And I know we’ve all experienced this messy library phenomenon before.  When I haven’t had enough sleep, I can have trouble putting together a coherent sentence, let alone processing complex information at work. No bueno.

And did you know that with too little sleep, cognitive performance suffers twice as quickly as physical performance? So you’re uncoordinated, and you’re dumb. Great combo.

4. It makes you crave, and eat, far more than usual. Do you know what I want to do when I’m over tired? Eat. Do you know what I want to eat? All of the sugar in the world. Sugar, bread, crackers; basically ALL OF THE CARBS.  I also feel like I can never get full. When I’m over tired, I can eat constantly all day and not feel satisfied. Why is this? Sleep deprivation actually increases your body’s levels of ghrelin (the hormone that tells you to eat more), and decreases your body’s level of leptin (the hormone that tells you you’re satisfied). So your body is basically telling you to keep eating and never stop. Hormones can be pretty evil sometimes.

This brings us to the next point…

5. It decreases your body’s ability to deal with blood sugar. After you’ve stuffed your face with all of the sugar that you can find, your body then has no idea what to do with all of it.  Lack of sleep increases levels of cortisol (stress hormone) in your body. Cortisol in small doses is a good thing, but when levels are consistently elevated, that’s when you get in trouble. Elevated cortisol levels impedes they body’s insulin response, inhibiting the body’s ability to convert blood glucose to glycogen (the energy stores that your muscles count on), therefore keeping blood glucose levels elevated. This can lead to a whole host of problems long term, including obesity and increased risk of diabetes.

6. It severely decreases repair and recovery. Sleep is not only essential for your brain activity, but it’s absolutely imperative for the rest of your body as well. Your body releases growth hormone while you’re sleeping, which is exactly what your muscles need to repair and regenerate. Lack of sleep means a lack of GH, which also means a lack of recovery from that day’s workout. Last week when I was overly exhausted, I felt like I couldn’t recover at all between workouts. I intentionally did a lighter lift on Monday because I knew that on Wednesday I would be trying for a PR at the stadium. Well, Wednesday rolled around (after a light Monday lift and taking Tuesday totally off), and I felt as though I had max squatted the night before. My legs were heavy and ridiculously tired, and I obviously didn’t make that PR. Fast forward to Friday’s lift, and I felt like I had been busting my ass in the gym all week. I was tired, weak, and everything felt like it took much more effort than normal. All in all, it was a pretty horrible week of training.

So my point is, a lack of sleep over the past few weeks really turned me into a weak, blubbering idiot. I think I’m now getting back on track for my normal sleep schedule, so hopefully I can get back to feeling like my fairly strong, intelligent self soon.

Readers: Do you think that you sleep enough? How many hours of sleep do you get per night? Which of these effects do you feel the most when you don’t get enough sleep?


Sleep, The Athlete, and Performance.  Strength & Conditioning Journal. 24(2):17-24, April 2002.

Sleep, Recovery, and Athletic Performance: A Brief Review and Recommendations. Strength & Conditioning Journal. 35(5):43-47, October 2013.

Short Sleep Duration Is Associate With Reduced Leptin, Elevated Ghrelin, And Increased Body Mass Index.

The Impact of Sleep Deprivation on Hormones And Metabolism. Medscape.

20 thoughts on “How Important Is Sleep, Really?

  1. Sleep is so important to me! I get a hard time from people consistently because if I can go to bed at 8pm, I’m cuddled up ready for sleep! And 90% of the time, that is the case! If it’s 9pm and I’m still awake, I get frustrated and I’m already dreading my 4:45am alarm. Because I plan my work outs in the morning (usually 5-5:30), I like to be asleep before 8:30 because I’m up around 4:30. Lack of sleep can really set you back.

    1. I know where you’re coming from! I’m almost always ready for bed by around 10 pm because I wake up at 6, so I’m with ya! At least once per week I do get up around 5:15 though, and the night before I’m always ready for bed by 9… I’d much rather go to bed early and be up and ready in the morning!

  2. Insightful article, sleep could arguably be the most important yet overlooked aspect of recovery

    1. Thanks 🙂 I really do think that it’s one of the most (if not THE most) important aspects of recovery, and that you really can’t make proper progress without it. Thanks for reading!

  3. This is so true! I was sleep deprived for seven weeks when my son was born (he was our first). I was a basket-case!! Even now if I am sleep-deprived for some reason, I crave caffeine and sugar like crazy!

    1. Yes the sugar cravings are insane, aren’t they? It’s like your body is just screaming for energy, even if it is very short lived!

  4. I’ve started sleeping earlier lately and for sure I am much more centered and energized and clear in the AMs– thanks for sharing the other benefits in your post!

    1. Thanks for reading! Glad you’ve been able to see a positive difference in your days!

  5. I get ALL of the above if I don’t sleep adequately. Including but not limited to feeling like I’m concussed all over again (which is basically all of the listed symptoms lol). The crying at the drop of a hat is the worst one. Possibly also the most hilarious to look back on though.

    My fellow students sometimes make fun of me because I make a point of being very careful to get enough sleep. No, I don’t cram to all hours of the night.. Why? I’d regurgitate the info completely upside down and start crying for zero reason. Sanity. Sanity is why I sleep.

    1. Ugh the crying can be pretty humiliating, huh? And I was the same way in school!! I had a cutoff time every night, I would not study past 11 pm. Why bother pulling an all nighter if my brain isn’t going to be able to process the information?

  6. That is an awesome blog post ! Thanks for this !

  7. I don’t get enough sleep, though I know I should. I have a very messed up sleeping schedule. One day I’d get six hours of sleep, the next seven, then four the day after. Come the weekend, I might sleep for ten or eleven hours straight (oversleeping, also bad!). . . All this mess makes me disoriented. My short term memory is weak and jumbled. I sometimes can’t recall if I did something “this morning” or “yesterday morning” or “one morning last week”. I have a hard time sorting the things that need to be done out without having a pen and paper, and then going multiple times over the list just to make sure. Physically, my body is not as strong as it can be. I know it.
    All in all, it makes me feel so bad about myself. I should get more sleep and stick to a schedule, but life can be so distracting sometimes.

    1. Life can be very distracting!! I do feel that sleep has to be made a priority, but that not everyone needs exactly 8 hours per night. If that doesn’t work for you and your schedule, maybe at least try to get a consistent amount — even if it’s just 7 hours per night?

  8. I laugh at how much my sleep patterns have changed over the years. When I was in college, an average night was 4-5 hours and I thought I was fine. Now if I don’t get my 8 hours I feel like I can’t even function and the day is a write-off. It’s funny how quickly our bodies learn to depend on healthy habits.

    1. Oh my goodness, I used to be able to stay out until 6 am, get up at 10 am, and be on with my day (really!). Now if I don’t get at least 8 hours I’m dying! You’re right, we do change so much as we age — although a lot of things I’ve read have suggested that teenagers actually need more sleep, even when they don’t feel like they do.

  9. Great post and so many of your points hit home- I’m currently going through exams so early wake up calls are a must and sleep goes on the backburner. What I’ve find abit of a nuisance is getting to that stage of sleep deprivation where you go to bed at a decent time, your body is dead tired but your ‘too tired’ to fall asleep if that makes sense!

    1. Oh, I hate that feeling of being too tired — my restless leg syndrome also flares when I’m over tired, so that makes it even worse! Hopefully your schedule calms down soon when exams are over?!

  10. I have read up on sleep/sleep patterns for years. I am one of the sad souls that needs a solid 9 hours of SLEEP (not in bed but actual sleep). I have been frustrated my entire life. I always think of how many things I could cure in this world if I didn’t require so much darn sleep. Anyway, I have NEVER heard about the “library” theory and it makes perfect sense! I am going to think of that little fact when I am deciding if I can watch one more episode of a show or read one more chapter of a book…if I have a big meeting the next day the answer should be NO!

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