How Insufficient Sleep Makes You Fat, Stupid, And Dead

If you need a reason to shut off your screens for a night, consider your waistline, your working life, and beyond.

Need a reason to #unplug? How about four: Exxon Valdex, Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, Challenger. As we continue to look into these man-made disasters, we discover they're increasingly linked to insufficient sleep.

But sleepiness causes more everyday calamities, too.

As Jane E. Brody reports for the New York Times, more and more research shows how our sleeping habits affect just about every phase of our lives—be it your life expectancy, your decision making, or your ability to learn. In other words, if your attitude is that you'll sleep when you're dead, you'll soon be dead.

Much of the article focuses on ways that sleep deprivation affects your health—like how it mucks up all your organs and how the corresponding loss in metabolism could make you put on 10 pounds in a year—but we, as productivity nerds, are most interested in what it does to our working lives.

Cramping your learning

For you to be able to access a memory, that memory first has to be encoded into your brain (and you have to have been paying attention when it happened). Without that time to consolidate your experiences at night, you won't retain what happened during the day. This is an advertisement for mindfulness—and for getting enough rest.

"During sleep, new learning and memory pathways become encoded in the brain, and adequate sleep is necessary for those pathways to work optimally," Brody writes. "People who are well rested are better able to learn a task and more likely to remember what they learned."

Stunting your thinking

But if you don't get enough, you send your self-awareness into a productivity-crippling stupor. Dr. Timothy Roehrs did an interesting experiment to measure just how much, as the American Psychological Association reports:

Dr. Roehrs and his colleagues paid sleepy and fully alert subjects to complete a series of computer tasks. At random times, they were given a choice to take their money and stop. Or they could forge ahead with the potential of either earning more money or losing it all if their work was not completed within an unknown remainder of time.

Dr. Roehrs found that the alert people were very sensitive to the amount of work they needed to do to finish the tasks and understood the risk of losing their money if they didn't. But the sleepy subjects chose to quit the tasks prematurely or they risked losing everything by trying to finish the task for more money even when it was 100 percent likely that they would be unable to finish, said Dr. Roehrs.

The takeaway: The sleepier you are, the less you realize how much your performance is sagging. Which can have, as we noted above, disastrous results.

Wrecking your awareness

Sleepy driving is as bad as drunk driving. And as Brody reports, "no amount of caffeine or cold air can negate the ill effects."

But what if you're behind your desk rather than the wheel of your car? Chances are you might cheat the people you work with.

How to know if you're starving yourself of shuteye

While we can have a general feeling that we're sleeping-walking through the day—20% of American adults report performance-interrupting sleepiness multiple times a week—having a clearer picture of the symptoms can help us nip somnambulance in the bud (or the bed, that is).

David F. Dinges, Ph.D., of the Division of Sleep and Chronobiology and Department of Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, describes the symtoms of sleep deprivation as coming in :

  1. Irritability, moodiness, and disinhibition
  2. Apathy, slowed speech, and flattened emotional responses, impaired memory and an inability to be novel or multitask

So if we find ourselves with a few of these symptoms, what ever shall we do? Train in the subtle arts of getting to bed the right way.

"Cheating Ourselves of Sleep"

[Fat Guy: Upthebanner via Shutterstock]

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  • Chelsea Leger

    I can't agree more with this article, especially the tie it made to mindfulness. I took an online course in mindfulness meditation and my sleep has improved dramatically, and with it, my working memory and performance. The course I took was meditationSHIFT and I highly recommend it, but there are a lot of other great resources out there on mindfulness these days. It's amazing how much it can help your productivity and quality of life. Great article!

  • Janet Spangler

    This is spot on writing!  When the body has less than 7 hours of (good) sleep, it remains in stress-mode and cannot regenerate cells.  It increases the production of cortisol so the body becomes fatter.  Ouch! I used to not be able to sleep for 7-8 hours.  Now, with some all-natural assistance, I sleep every night, through the night. 

  • Vgj1979

    As a Narcoleptic, I look forward to being fat and stupid, but I suppose it won't matter because I will be dead. Thanks for this article. The Narcoleptic forums are laughing at you. A lot.

  • Vgj1979

    Apologies. That did not mean to say 'laughing at you', just 'laughing a lot'.

  • JT Koffenberger

    No doubt about this one.  I know I certainly feel and operate better with the proper amount of sleep.

  • Thegoods

    You hint at increased weight gain as another possible effect of sleep deprivation yet it's nowhere in the article even though the main image is of an overweight man. Sloppy. 

  • AnnoyingButtrue

    Personally I  have found reading an article before commenting helps a lot towards not looking like a fool on the interwebs:

    "Much of the article focuses on ways that sleep deprivation affects your
    health--like how it mucks up all your organs and how the corresponding
    loss in metabolism could make you put on 10 pounds in a year--but we, as
    productivity nerds, are most interested in what it does to our working

    Sloppy reading - you need sleep.

  • Thegoods746

    Lol so exactly one line about weight gain while 99% of the article is about the cognitive effects associated with lack of sleep? Yet they lead with a picture about the effect that's barely even touched on?

    My point still stands. If you lead with a picture about weight gain being correlated with lack of sleep, I'd like to see a just a little bit more than what was written. 

     Personally, I find that being able to think before typing a response helps even more towards not looking like a  fool on the interwebs. You should try it sometime.Sloppy thinking - get some shut eye.

  • Pam Munson

    If you will follow the link to the NYTimes article that is supplied there is documentation to the sleep-weight gain stats and research you are needing. Not sloppy writing. 


    Thanks for a great post Drake...
    I too have found myself many times risking zero sleep for a deadline. Sometimes stretching 48 hours or more. Understandably one can see how this would more likely make one fail then succeed.

  • Nelson Bates

    I love the .."inability to be novel." Essentially, unable to be creative. As a marketer, that's everything to me. I think I'll go to take a nap now. Nice article.


    Thanks for the article Drake. I have had moments in my life in which I was operating on less than optimal sleep levels. The results were sufficient to get me to where I needed to go, but I can't imagine myself being successful, had I also had a learning condition or any other form of impairment. Things like sleep can make all the difference between succeeding and failing. The symptoms are spot on though some ways to align sleep perfectly would have been appreciated.