Does Getting Less Sleep Affect Your Health?

New research illustrates the link between sleep deprivation and health.

Posted May 01, 2019

Over centuries, the human body has developed a natural rhythm that uses biological and environmental factors to determine when to sleep and eat. But continued advances in technology—starting with the light bulb and moving all the way to on-demand entertainment—allows people to ignore these natural rhythms in a phenomenon that researchers call “social jet lag.”

A new study published in the Journal of Health Economics uses time zones to help explain the health and economic consequences of “social jet lag.”

To understand what’s going on here, you need to start with a simple fact about time zones. If you have lived in more than one place, you may have noticed that the sun sets at different times of the day depending on where you are located within your time zone. For places on the east side of a time zone, the sun rises and sets earlier. Moving west in a time zone, the sun rises and sets later.

Sunset is an important biological trigger. Research demonstrates that when it begins to get darker, the brain produces melatonin, a hormone that makes us drowsy.

In this new study, researchers found that people who live farther east in their time zones experience earlier sunsets, thus tend to go to bed earlier compared to people who live farther west, who tend to go to bed later.

Because work and school schedules do not tend to be flexible, people who live on the west side of time zones are typically not able to sleep later in the morning. As a result, they tend to be more sleep-deprived; they are more likely to sleep less than six hours a night, and less likely to sleep more than eight hours a night. This problem is more pronounced for people who have to be at work or school early in the morning.

Researchers were able to clearly demonstrate that these sleep deficits lead to health problems. Specifically, people living on the west side of their time zones are 11 percent more likely to be overweight. They are also significantly more likely to have diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and breast cancer. (Studies have found that sleep deprivation increases one’s risk of developing breast cancer.)

The authors took their analysis one step further. They made the case that sleep deprivation and health problems lead to foggy thinking, disrupt productivity and may ultimately affect a person’s ability to earn money. They used survey data to ask the question: Do people living on the west side of time zones earn less money? The answer was yes. Their study found that wages tend to be 3 percent lower.

Those are serious consequences attributed to a little bit of lost sleep. The take-home message is that sleep is important for your health and well-being. Routinely depriving yourself of sleep can lead to medical problems and may even lead to reduced income.