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Sleep Deprivation and the skin

Maybe you’re up late, furiously studying for an important exam the next morning. Perhaps you’ve got to make a presentation at work and your nerves are keeping you awake. Or possibly your newborn is wailing at 3 AM, letting you know it’s time for another feeding.

Whatever your reasons for not getting enough beauty sleep, you’re in good company. An alarming number of adults don’t get enough sleep at night and suffer the physical and psychological effects of sleep deprivation as a result.

Thankfully, there are resources and options available to help with some of the negative side effects of a restless night.

Who Isn’t Getting Enough Sleep?

More people than you’d think. In 2016, the United States’ Center for Disease Control (CDC) reported that some 33% of American adults weren’t getting their required amount of sleep.

The problem isn’t endemic to the United States, either. A 2015 study by Bensons for Beds, Britain’s largest bed retailer, noted that the average adult was missing out on an entire night’s sleep each week.

Another study, this one conducted by Aviva, an insurance provider, concluded that the UK was the most sleep-deprived nation in the world, followed by Ireland and then Canada.

How Much Sleep is Enough?

woman in bed

According to the National Sleep Foundation (NSF), an American non-profit organization dedicated to studying sleep, adults aged 26 to 64 need between 7 and 9 hours of sleep every night.

However, the NSF also notes that not all adults are built exactly the same. Some people need as much as 10 hours of sleep a night, while for others as little as 6 hours will suffice. In short, feeling alert and well-rested is more important than numbers, because when it comes to sleep, quantity doesn’t necessarily equal quality.

It’s worth noting here that when it comes to sleep, quantity does not equal quality. Someone could get a full 8 hours of sleep but if that sleep is not restful, the person will suffer negative effects. Celebrated dermatologist Dr. Jeanine Downie of Image Dermatology in Montclair, NJ, points out that sleep apnea is proven to have an adverse effect on the “microvascular function,” which leads to premature aging.

This is largely because a poor or disrupted sleep cycle means less time spent in deep sleep. In the next section, you’ll learn more about how these small blood vessels affect the skin’s appearance.

The Effects of Sleep Deprivation on the Body

When adults aren’t well rested, there’s more at stake than just a day spent yawning and constantly feeling the need for an extra dose of caffeine. Sleep deprivation has serious and, sometimes, long-term detrimental effects on the body and the mind. Setting aside mental side effects like delayed reaction times and poor memory for a moment, let’s instead focus on how sleep deprivation affects your face, skin and figure.

  • Dark circles. Let’s start with the obvious. Everybody knows that someone walking around with “raccoon eyes” probably didn’t get enough sleep the night before. This darkening under the eyes occurs when blood vessels dilate, which is a direct result of lack of sleep.
  • Bags under the eyes. Bags and dark circles often go hand in hand. However, they aren’t exactly the same. Under-eye bags can be caused by many things, not just sleep deprivation. They occur when the skin under the eyes sags or swells, often the result of excess fluid in the body.
  • Red eyes. Eyes can become bloodshot from lack of sleep. Like the dark circles mentioned above, red eyes are caused by dilated blood vessels.
  • Thinning hair. In this case, the hair loss is caused by telogen effluvium. Lack of sleep can result in increased cortisol levels (otherwise known as “stress hormones”), which is accompanied by a baggage-load of issues. The stress and exhaustion resulting from sleep deprivation can, over time, trigger telogen effluvium, causing diffuse hair loss across the scalp.
  • Breaking out. If you’re prone to bouts of acne, you are at greater risk of breaking out thanks to a poor night’s sleep. Once again, the real culprit is stress, which can trigger breakouts at any age.
  • Wrinkles and drooping. Sleep deprivation is often accompanied by reduced collagen and, therefore, poor skin elasticity. This means more wrinkled and saggy skin that can result in a downturned or frowning expression. Researchers at Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, Sweden noted that sleep study participants looked “sad” after several nights of poor sleep.
  • Weight gain. That’s right, sleep deprivation does not stop with your face and hair. Several studies have demonstrated a correlation between weight gain and lack of sleep, including a 2014 study conducted by neuroscientists at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, a teaching hospital associated with Harvard University. These researchers determined that those who got a full 8 hours of sleep burned twice as much fat as those who didn’t get sufficient rest. This and other studies determined that lack of sleep increased hunger and decreased metabolic rates.

This may come as a surprise to some people, but Image Dermatology’s Dr. Downie notes that many of her patients are “shocked” when she continuously emphasizes the need for sleep for better skin health.

When asked to expound on the effects of lack of sleep on the body, Dr. Downie cited dehydration and its potential to negatively impact on the skin: “Dehydrated skin is not happy skin, and one of the easiest ways to look like you’re aging poorly is to have dry, crepey and/or flaky skin.” However, she also notes that hormonal changes brought about by lack of sleep could be of an even greater concern.

The Effects of Sleep Deprivation on the Skin

Woman can't sleep

We’ve already talked a little about how a poor night’s sleep can cause your skin to break out and sag. However, the effects of sleep deprivation on the skin are a little more nuanced than just wrinkles and pimples.

Sleep deprivation ages the skin, thereby aging you (at least as you appear to others). The lines and blemishes that appear on your skin after a poor night’s sleep are exactly the type that might appear with age.

In the 2015 Bensons for Beds study, researchers examined a group of 30 women. These women all received a solid night’s sleep (8 hours) before having their faces documented. Researchers counted their wrinkles, pores, brown spots and red blemishes.

The same women then slept 6 hours a night for 5 nights in a row. Once more, the researchers counted these signs of aging. The researchers concluded that, after sleeping poorly for 5 nights, the subjects had twice the number of wrinkles, dark circles under the eyes and 3/4 more brown spots.

Can These Effects Be Reversed With More Sleep?

Scientific research has clearly demonstrated that sleep deprivation leads to premature aging of the skin. In order to prevent looking like you’re 40 when you’re only 28, you need to get enough sleep. However, science doesn’t appreciate the fact that you have a child, a busy job and a boatload of responsibilities. What happens when you just can’t take the time for more sleep?

Many people try to get “make up sleep.” In other words, they power through the work week only to sleep extra long on the weekends. These sleep-deprived people hope that as long as they get enough sleep in a given week, their body will forgive them. This is not entirely true.

To be sure, with more sleep you will experience some improvement when it comes to your metabolism and skin. It’s not like these negative effects on the body are constantly compiling and sending your complexion on an irreversible downward spiral. You yourself have probably noticed that after a few good nights’ sleep, those raccoon eyes start looking a little less worn.

However, when your next busy work week arrives, you’ll undo all that good again and, over time, the stress on your body from the constant fluctuations will have more lasting aging effects. If it helps, think of the binge and purge sleep cycle as two steps forward and one step back where forward is an older looking you.

However, don’t feel too disheartened. A 2013 study published in the American Journal of Physiology examined the effects of make up sleep on sleep-deprived individuals. The researchers looked at 30 healthy men and women over a period of 13 nights. On the first night, the participants were given a solid 8 hours of sleep before tests were run to determine a baseline. The participants then slept 6 hours a night for 6 nights before being tested again. This test showed increased cortisol levels, poor memory, poor reaction time and decreased sleep latency (the amount of time it takes to fall asleep after lying down).

At the conclusion of the study, the participants slept 10 hours a night over the course of 3 “recovery” nights, with this final test revealing that little had changed. Many of the mental effects of sleep deprivation were still an issue. However, cortisol levels had gone down, meaning that make up sleep may have some positive effects on those physical changes caused by the stress hormone (like thinning hair and breaking out).

Still, it would seem that sleep is not like filling up the tank in your car. It doesn’t matter how much you got last night, you need to get 8 hours every night.

Can These Effects Be Reversed with Plastic Surgery?

If you’ve been running yourself ragged and can’t get rid of those spots and wrinkles with a sleep binge or two, what can you do? Plastic surgery cannot reverse all of the repercussions of poor sleep habits. However, it can help improve your complexion and boost your confidence when a busy lifestyle has taken its toll.

  • Botox. This simple and non-invasive solution can do wonders for wrinkles and fine lines. It has even proven successful as an acne treatment if insufficient sleep has resulted in a break-out.
  • Blepharoplasty. This procedure specifically targets the bags under your eyes. It typically removes excess tissue from under the eye and smooths out the skin.
  • Face lift. This may be an extreme choice depending on your needs, but it will definitely treat sagging skin. If you find that you’re developing that perpetual frown as noted by the researchers in Stockholm, then this might be your best choice.
  • Medical-grade skin care products. This isn’t really plastic surgery. However, you still might want to consult a plastic surgeon (or dermatologist) about products that help treat spots, redness and fine lines.

If you are looking at plastic surgery to keep sleep deprivation from aging you too quickly, remember that there is still no substitute for a good night’s sleep. The best defense against aging will be to address your current concerns while carving out time for 8 solid hours each night.

How to Sleep Better

Maybe you have plenty of time set aside for sleep each night, but are just unable to fall asleep when your head hits the pillow. Insomnia can be difficult to manage, but Dr. Downie has some advice for people who struggle to fall and stay asleep: “Get moving and work hard. If your body and mind are tired at the end of the day, then each entity will rest and get all the sleep it needs.”

More specifically, she suggests exercising at least 5 days a week for 50 minutes (25 minutes of cardio and 25 minutes of weight training). If that still doesn’t help with your sleeplessness, Dr. Downie also suggests avoiding spicy foods before bed and activities in bed (such as reading or watching TV). Make sure that your curtains or drapes keep your room dark.

With some dedication and a renewed commitment to relaxation, you should be sleeping better (and looking better) in no time.

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About The Author

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I am a former teacher, current resident of Colorado, and new mom. When I’m not writing and chilling with my son, I’m gaming, watching movies, doing yoga, eating out, taking pictures, and harassing my cats. I love words.

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