Stop Snoring. Sleep Better.

Stress Hormones, Sleep, and Health Effects By Victoria S. Brkovich, MD


Disturbed sleep widely impacts our day-to-day mood and behaviors.  Below is a series of questions and answers looking at the effect poor sleep may have on our health—specifically our stress hormone levels, appetite, metabolism, and mood.

  • Poor sleeping habits affect the production of cortisol and adrenaline in what way?  What are the consequences of that? 

Poor sleep can lead to an increase in the production of cortisol and adrenaline, which are also referred to as the “stress hormones.”  Generally speaking, having a chronic higher level of stress hormones can increase the risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, heart attack, and stroke.

  • Does lack of sleep affect your hunger levels and the type of foods you crave?

Yes, it can, particularly an acute lack of sleep.  Research has found that subjects who had a limited night of sleep had more cravings for high-calorie, carbohydrate-rich foods, and in fact did eat on average over 500 calories more in a day without increasing their activity level.

  • What about the effect on metabolism? Does lack of sleep slow down your metabolism? Does it affect how your body processes and stores fat?

Over the long term, certainly metabolism can be affected, but it’s a more complicated picture.  Let’s go back to cortisol–which is one of the stress hormones that is critical for health, when in proper balance.

The increased levels of cortisol that can occur with poor sleep may lead to complications such as high blood pressure, glucose intolerance and diabetes, osteoporosis, hair loss, cold intolerance, acne, and low libido.

In terms of fat storage, when in a high cortisol state, the body tends to deposit fat around the middle—leading to abdominal weight gain.

  • Comment on this statement: “One of the common symptoms of sleep debt is that inability to wind down come evening time.” 

Well, again referring to the increased levels of stress hormones present, these higher levels of cortisol and adrenaline may cause you to feel like you’re in ‘overdrive.’  You may feel tired, yet wired; you may have a higher sense of anxiety; you may have scattered or racing thoughts and not be able to focus; you may have a shorter fuse.

  • Does poor sleeping affect how easy your body heals (for example, from illness or from an intense workout)? Are you more likely to suffer from pains and aches if you don’t sleep well or enough?

Poor sleep definitely affects how well the body heals.  We know that sleep loss impairs immune function, and sleep architecture is altered during infection to improve the body’s defenses.

It also appears that poor sleep, or sleep deprivation, can increase the likelihood you will suffer from aches and pains.  For example, one study looked at a healthy group of middle-aged women and deprived a portion of that group of slow wave sleep (the deepest stage of sleep) for a period of three days.  In response, those women showed a decreased tolerance for pain and increased levels of discomfort and fatigue.

Overall, despite a significant amount of research into sleep and sleep disorders, there are still large gaps in terms of our current knowledge—not the least of which is exactly why we require sleep.

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