13 Eye-Opening Side Effects of Insomnia

Updated on June 20, 2017
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After three years, I overcame chronic insomnia. I am passionate about helping others do the same.

Insomnia is a hell beast in itself, but the side effects can be so much worse than the lack of sleep itself. It’s nearly impossible to live a normal life.

The physical pain and the mental torture can (and usually does) happen to anyone with insomnia, and it can get worse the longer you have it. The reason for this is when you sleep, your body is repairing itself for the next day. Of course, when you don’t sleep, it’s not doing that.

I’m not asking you to feel sorry for yourself. But I do want you to have some facts in your back pocket so when someone whines about having a single sleepless night like it’s the same thing, you can throw some facts in their face.

Without further ado:

The physical to the mental effects of insomnia.

Effects of Insomnia

1. Your quality of life tanks

Life can already be tough. You have bills to pay, relationships to maintain, and a career to manage, let alone having insomnia.

Perhaps you’re still early into adulthood and these sort of things whacked you in the face. Maybe you’re managing ok, but sometimes it feels like it’s too much. You have dreams but it feels like the world just beats you down sometimes. You didn’t sign up for this.

Or maybe you’re at the other end – life experience has started to show up as lines on your face and greys in your hair. Maybe you’re successful, but feel like something is missing. Or perhaps your life unfolded in a way that you really didn’t want. You don’t know how it happened, but now you’re here.

The existential drama of human existence is complex, beautiful, and at times painful. Even the most stable person can show cracks in the painful moments. You add to that a severe bout with chronic insomnia and your overall quality of life just feels bleaker and infinitely more difficult to manage.

2. Cognitive Impairment

Your everyday functioning has decreased substantially. Learning can feel challenging and you’re not as creative as you used to be. Your emotions are all over the place and it’s harder to make decisions. You’re moody and the smallest inconvenience can throw you into a fit of rage.

This is because your central nervous system isn’t getting the repairs it needs to function properly. During sleep, your neurons take a break from their daily grind while simultaneously forming new pathways so you’re ready to face to next day refreshed. Sleep also signals to your body to produce proteins that repair cell damage. Your body didn’t get a chance to recover, so it’s sending all types of wonky signals that you need sleep.

3. Feeling like you’re going insane

If sleep deprivation continues long enough, you can become paranoid and hallucinate. It’s incredibly creepy to know that our brains can produce this sort of effect if we don’t sleep. When my insomnia was really bad, I swore that there was someone (or something) living in our apartment. I ‘saw’ figures run by in a flash of black, and was terrified. I also heard things that were never said.

4. Micro Sleep

Micro sleep is when you fall asleep for only a few seconds and don’t even realize it. You’re so sleep deprived that your brain is trying to get a few seconds of rest as a survival mechanism.

According to Vyazovskiy et al., 2011, part of your brain temporarily goes ‘offline’ while other neurons are still ‘awake’. You can’t control this, it just happens. This is obviously quite dangerous when you’re driving. Micro sleep has also been responsible for aviation, boating, and nuclear reactor accidents.

5. You get sick and can’t recover

When you’re sleeping, your immune system produces antibodies and cells that protect you from viruses and bacterium. When you don’t sleep, not only are you more likely to fall ill, it takes you longer to recover according to the Mayo Clinic.

Then there’s the human growth hormone. It is released during Phase 3 (REM) stage of sleep and plays a vital role in maintaining healthy body tissue. Sleep deprivation stops the release of growth hormone so you can’t recover.

6. No impulse control

Sleep deprivation throws your cravings completely out of whack. You may suddenly feel the need to eat things you normally wouldn’t be drawn to. Or maybe you’ve always like candy and fatty foods but now it seems impossible not to eat it. There are a few reasons for this:

  • Cortisol: long term stress from not sleeping causes the release of cortisol which in turn makes you crave fatty and sugary foods.
  • Leptin: this lil buddy tells your brain when you’ve had enough to eat. According Taheri et al., 2004, sleep deprivation causes a marked decrease in leptin causing you to eat more.
  • Ghrelin: The same study from Taheri et al., 2004 shows that sleep deprivation increases ghrelin which stimulates your appetite.
  • Insulin: “…the body’s reaction to sleep loss can resemble insulin resistance, a precursor to diabetes. Insulin’s job is to help the body use glucose for energy. In insulin resistance, cells fail to use the hormone efficiently, resulting in high blood sugar.” – Denise Mann

7. Chronic Illness

Since gaining weight is more likely if you’re an insomniac (see #6), you increase the risk of having problems with your cardiovascular system.

In addition to this, your blood vessels and heart are repaired during sleep, ergo, sleep deprivation can lead to a higher risk of health problems like high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke.

(The effects of insomnia just keep getting better, huh?)

8. Your memory is shot

Another one of insomnia’s side effects is memory loss. This type of memory loss isn’t just your run-of-the-mill walk into a room and forget what you’re doing. You can forget standard facts about people and subjects. You might even forget what you’re saying mid sentence, or even forget where you are.

Why is this? According to Dr. Howard LeWine from Harvard Medical School, it can be 2 things:

The first is the same stuff as what causes chronic illness – your cardiovascular system isn’t being repaired so your blood vessels constrict, which can cause stuff like heart disease and high blood pressure. This in turn decreases the amount of blood to your brain so it isn’t getting the oxygen and sugar needed to recall memories.

The second is that sleep deprivation causes the development of a protein called beta amyloid. Beta amyloid has be linked to a decrease in memory and also to dementia.

9. You’re more accident prone

Another study coming out of Harvard Medical School shows that sleeping 5 or less hours per night increases your chance of dying by 15%. This is mainly due to accidents on the road.

I personally think it’s a miracle that I didn’t get into an accident when my insomnia was at its peak. I drove 6 hours through the mountains on 6 hours of TOTAL sleep over 3 days. I’ve driven to work countless times on less than 4 hours of sleep. There was one time I heard a “FUCK YOU!” because I almost hit a pedestrian but it didn’t register until a few seconds later what could have happened.

10. You’re anti-social

Insomnia can be a very lonely existence. Since insomnia causes you to be moodier and quicker to snap, you might not want to be around people. Or maybe they don’t want to be around you. You can barely contain your own emotions let alone handle someone else’s. It also feel like climbing a mountain through a snowstorm to want to go out and hold conversations. You just want to get some SLEEP… maintaining relationships is just too much right now.

11. Exploding head syndrome

This one is rare but worth mentioning. I’ve never experienced this myself, but what happens is: you hear a loud bang or crash right before you’re about to fall asleep. You might see a flash of light as well. Some people think they’re having a stroke when it happens. It does not cause physical pain but it obviously creates fear and makes it even hard to get to sleep.

There is no cure for this, and so far there are only theories as to why it happens to some people.

12. You can get superstitious

This is just anecdotal, however, I become very superstitious when I can’t sleep. Everything has to be in its proper place, the radio has to be on the same station that it was on when I last slept well, and I have to sleep in the same pyjamas that I last slept well in.

As far as I know, there isn’t scientific evidence correlating superstition to insomnia and it might be more related to anxiety and the need to control my external environment to feel ‘safe’. Just know that if you’re experiencing this too, you’re definitely not alone.

13. Depression

As you can see by the previous 12 effects of insomnia, it can be a lot to deal with. Your body isn’t functioning as it should and sometimes it’s a self perpetuating cycle. You feel like this will never end so you set yourself up for failure because your optimism is gone . You believe you won’t get better so you don’t.

It’s hard not to resign yourself to this difficult illness. You may have been having insomnia for weeks, months, years, or decades and it’s hard not to feel hopeless.

Suicidal thoughts may have crept in. If they have, you’re not alone. I’ve had thoughts of ways to go myself.

It’s an awful thing to feel like a shell of your former self. If you’re at this stage, please know:

Insomnia can be cured. I know you don’t believe me, but it can. The first step in turning your depression around is having that glimmer of hope that insomnia isn’t a life sentence.


There are many resources if you feel like you’re at the end of your rope:

  1. Look up the suicide hotline in your country
  2. Try this online chat or this one
  3. Check out reddit’s depression and suicide watch threads for support and further resources.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

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