12/09/2013 08:15 am ET Updated Feb 08, 2014

Sleep Deprivation: Here's What Can Happen

According to the National Sleep Foundation, adults should get between seven and nine hours of shut-eye per night, with that number going up or down depending on age.

The foundation cites an increased risk of accident and injury as a main result of sleep deprivation, and investigation of the recent train derailment shows that the engineer may have fallen asleep just before the crash. Lack of sleep has been linked with some of the world's great tragedies, including Chernobyl, the Challenger explosion and Three Mile Island.

In 2011, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) found that more than 70 million adults suffer from some form of sleep disorder, including insomnia, narcolepsy, sleep apnea and restless leg syndrome. In that same article, the CDC refers to sleep deprivation as a "public health epidemic," and I completely agree. Sleep affects every system in the body, and each one must function efficiently in order to achieve optimum health. In fact, I alluded to sleep in my recent blog, "Are You Healed or Whole?"

Here are just four things that can happen to you without sleep:

You might become depressed. This relationship is complex, because sleep deprivation can be both a cause and result of depression. Research suggests, however, that the risk of developing depression is highest among people with sleep disorders.

You could experience sleep paralysis. It's pretty common, usually infrequent and often temporary -- but please don't, for one minute, dismiss the potential harm of sleep paralysis. Often described as a" walking nightmare," it is caused by the disruption of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep which, in turn, is caused by insomnia, stress and anxiety.
Here is one case where it could have been fatal: One of my friends, who experienced intense stress for days before the incident, couldn't sleep one night so he was up reading and watching DVDs until about 4 a.m. He had to rise again at 7:30 a.m. to drive his son somewhere and, on the way home, completely lost all memory and consciousness and woke up to find his car on a guardrail; if the guardrail hadn't stopped him, his car could have flipped over and fallen down a ravine. Luckily, he walked away without a scratch, but the car was completely destroyed. "The strange thing is I had to make at least two turns to get to the (accident) spot, but I just don't remember a thing," he told me.

You might gain weight Sleep is directly related to three hormones that control hunger. The first is cortisol, that "fight or flight" hormone that can also make us look puffy, interfere with glucose levels, act foggy and moody, and spread those waistlines. The second and third includes the hormones ghrelin and leptin. But, seriously, also ask yourself if you'll really feel like exercising when you're so tired -- and we don't exactly make the best food choices when we're exhausted.

You'll lower your immunity. JAMA Internal Medicine reports a study with 300 people given the rhino (cold) virus; it was found that those who got less than 7.5 hours of sleep were much more susceptible to catching something.