Insomnia - Part 1: How Bad Can Insomnia Get?

A sleepless night here and there can be expected for most adults, considering the many work and personal pressures we experience. However, what happens when a restless night becomes a regular occurrence?

Insomnia is a sleep disorder which affects millions of people worldwide. Really bad insomnia can negatively affect a person’s health, quality of life, and life expectancy. Insomnia causes a person to struggle to fall asleep and then stay asleep. This leads to fewer and fewer hours of restful sleep, and far less than what is required for optimum physical, emotional, and mental wellbeing.

Symptoms of insomnia include excessive fatigue, sleepiness, irritability, and low productivity. However, this is only a drop in the bucket of the health consequences of insomnia.

The effects of insomnia on health snowball as the problem persists. Insomnia has been linked to increased risk of cancer, stroke, heart attack, obesity, depression, hypertension, and diabetes. In some cases, the effects can be fatal.

What is giving you sleepless nights?

So, what causes insomnia? Many factors can disrupt our circadian rhythm (our natural sleep/wake cycle). For example:

  • Stress, including worry, anxiety or fear of any kind
  • Hormonal disturbances
  • Stimulants like coffee, tea, and energy drinks
  • Use of cell phones, laptops, and other electronic gadgets before bedtime
  • A sedentary lifestyle and lack of exercise
  • Poor sleeping habits
  • Certain medications or natural supplements and herbs
  • Disease or illness of any kind

If you’re tempted to turn to sleeping pills to get some much-needed shut-eye, think again. While pills can possibly help in the short-term, they also come with side-effects and will not solve the problem long term. It’s best to address the underlying causes of your insomnia to regain your sleep quality and healthy routine.

How much sleep do you really need?

There’s no cut-and-dried answer, as sufficient sleep levels depend on age, lifestyle, profession, and your overall health. The National Sleep Foundation offers a guideline for the amount of sleep required according to age [1].

How bad can insomnia get?

During sleep, our body works hard, undergoing intense repair, renewal, and detoxification. Let’s explore the important activities our bodies get up to as we sleep, attesting to why sleep is utterly crucial for our wellbeing and longevity.

The games that hormones play

As we sleep, our body releases different hormones.

For example, a large burst of HGH (human growth hormone) is released as we sleep. HGH is important for many reasons: it fuels development and growth in children. It is important for protein synthesis and allows for the repair and maintenance of tissue, muscle, and bone. HGH works with other hormones to allow fat to be broken down and muscles to grow.

As we get ready to go to sleep, the important hormone melatonin is released. Melatonin is a strong antioxidant that fights free radicals and even combats the side-effects of cancer therapy drugs [2].

Sleep regulates insulin, the hormone that helps cells to use glucose in the bloodstream. What’s more, sufficient sleep controls ghrelin and leptin, the hunger-regulating hormones. This explains why a terrible night’s sleep, or a late night out can make us crave junk food (anything fried, salty, sweet, or carb-rich). Sleep deprivation tells the body to release more ghrelin (causing hunger) and hinders leptin (the hormone that suppresses appetite).

Cortisol, the stress hormone, has earned a bad reputation for causing weight gain (especially around the belly). However, it can be helpful when released at the right time as it can help us to deal with stressful situations. For example, it prepares the body for the “fight or flight mode” when necessary. The catch is that we don’t want to deal with an influx of cortisol when we are getting ready for sleep and restfulness. This is why cortisol levels drop at bedtime. However, cortisol levels increase in our last stages of sleep, before it’s time to get up and start the day, giving the body a boost of energy to face the morning.

Other hormones are released during sleep such as prolactin and oxytocin, both of which support various bodily functions.

Sleep strengthens the immune system too

Our immune system goes into overdrive as we sleep, producing special types of immune cells called “natural killer cells”. Natural killer cells promote a healthy immune system by fighting infections and keeping chronic disease and cancer at bay.

But what happens to the brain as we sleep? First of all, it does a whole lot more than produce a series of dreams for our entertainment. During deep sleep, the brain is a hive of activity cementing new memories, processing information from the day before, retaining what might be useful in the future, and discarding the irrelevant details.

Sleep deprivation and health risks

Now that you’re more informed about what your body does during sleep, and what happens when you repeat poor sleep patterns, you can imagine the effect it can have. Crucial processes become out of sync, while our body struggles to complete important repair and maintenance tasks. At surface level, it means that your body and mind are not ready to attack the day at full-speed.

Bad sleep causes us to wake up feeling groggy, disoriented, with weak memory and poor concentration. What’s more, it affects our ability to think rationally and make sensible decisions. Plus, your body produces a build-up of cortisol, causing the body to be on high alert at all times. Unfortunately, excessive cortisol is associated with heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure.

A poor wake-sleep cycle disrupts other hormones too, including melatonin, insulin, ghrelin, leptin, and prolactin. These hormonal disruptions wreak havoc on our metabolism, immune system, brain health, and cardiovascular system.

Long-term sleep deprivation and insomnia can have a long-lasting negative impact on our health. For example, people with insomnia have been found to have higher levels of inflammatory markers such as C-reactive protein and interleukin-6, impaired metabolism, weakened immune system, and disturbed mental and emotional stability.

Don’t just take our word for it, there are plenty of studies backing up these findings:

  • A 2015 study published in the journal Hypertension found that people with chronic insomnia may face an increased risk of hypertension [3].
  • A 2014 study found that the chances of stroke are higher in people with insomnia versus those who don't find any difficulty in sleeping [4].
  • A 2014 study strongly suggested that insomnia is associated with the risk of death due to cardiovascular disease [5].
  • A 2015 study suggested that sleep disturbances are linked with impaired glucose metabolism, insulin resistance, and risk of developing type 2 diabetes [6].
  • A 2016 study shows that insomnia may be associated with a risk of depression [7].

Chronic sleep loss and insomnia health risks include:

  • Premature aging
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Stroke
  • Diabetes, insulin resistance
  • Obesity
  • Depression, anxiety
  • Impaired hormone functions
  • Decreased sex drive
  • Impaired immunity
  • Cancer

So, how can you improve your quality of sleep and catch more z’s? Hang tight for our next installment where we discuss how to improve your sleep via natural methods.


  1. Hirshkowitz et al. National Sleep Foundation’s sleep time duration recommendations: methodology and results summary. Sleep Health. The Journal of National Sleep Foundation. March 2015.
  2. Ulkan Kilic, et. al., “Melatonin suppresses cisplatin-induced nephrotoxicity via activation of Nrf-2/HO-1 pathway,” Nutrition & Metabolism 2013, 10:7
  3. Yun Li, Alexandros N. Vgontzas, Julio Fernandez-Mendoza, Edward O. Bixler, Yuanfeng Sun, Junying Zhou, Rong Ren, Tao Li, and Xiangdong Tang. Insomnia With Physiological Hyperarousal Is Associated With Hypertension. Hypertension, January 2015 DOI:
  4. Ming-Ping Wu, Huey-Juan Lin, Shih-Feng Weng, Chung-Han Ho, Jhi-Joung Wang, and Ya-Wen Hsu. Insomnia Subtypes and the Subsequent Risks of Stroke: Report From a Nationally Representative Cohort. Stroke, April 2014 DOI: 10.1161/STROKEAHA.113.003675
  5. Sofi F, Cesari F, Casini A, Macchi C, Abbate R, Gensini GF. Insomnia and risk of cardiovascular disease: a meta-analysis. Eur J Prev Cardiol 2014;21:57-64.
  6. Strand et al. Sleep disturbances and glucose metabolism in older adults: the Cardiovascular Health Study. Diabetes Care 2015;38:2050–2058
  7. Li L, Wu C, Gan Y, Qu X, Lu Z. Insomnia and the risk of depression: a meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies. BMC Psychiatry. 2016;16:375. doi:10.1186/s12888-016-1075-3.