Why Lack of Sleep Might Be Good and Bad for You

A woman and a man nap inside a Starbucks in New York. According to the Centers for Disease Control, about one third of Americans don’t get enough shut-eye. Several recent studies offer conflicting evidence about the benefits of sleep. Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

Despite our many differences, there is one thing that nearly everyone has in common: sleep deprivation. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than one third of Americans regularly don't sleep enough.

The CDC cares because numerous studies have shown that forgoing quality sleep can increase risk of diabetes, obesity and depressive symptoms. But new research indicates that sleep deprivation could have some benefits, such as treating depression.

So, what's the story—does lack of sleep help or hurt? This summary of the latest findings could help you decide whether or not to press the snooze button again.

Related: How much does marijuana affect sleep?

Bad sleep can make kidney disease worse

People with kidney disease often have trouble sleeping, but a paper published earlier this month in the Journal of the American Society of Nephrology found new evidence about the relationship between the two. In a study of 431 patients with a mean age of 60 and with about half men and half women, researchers tracked sleep duration using special devices, along with sleep journals. All the patients in the study had chronic kidney disease, and half were diagnosed with diabetes. After five years, 70 people developed kidney failure, and poor sleep was associated with this condition. Nearly half of the patients died within the five years of the study.

"Each hour less of sleep duration increases the risk for deterioration of kidney function over time," Dr. Ana Ricardo, an associate professor of medicine in the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Medicine, said in a statement.

REM sleep might combat dementia

Scientists from Boston University enrolled 321 people over age 60 for a 12-year study looking at dementia risks. They found that a 1 percent decline in REM sleep was linked to a 9 percent increase in dementia and an 8 percent rise in Alzheimer's disease risk.

"Different stages of sleep may differentially affect key features of Alzheimer's disease. Our findings implicate REM sleep mechanisms as predictors of dementia," Matthew Pase, Ph.D., a fellow in the department of neurology at Boston University School of Medicine and study co-author, said in a statement.

Sleep deprivation could treat depression

Insufficient sleep has been tied to depressive symptoms. But a new meta-analysis published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry looking at that link found a surprising result: Sleep deprivation may actually treat depression. Researchers analyzed 66 studies and determined that partial sleep deprivation could improve depressive symptoms in as little as one day.

However, only six of the studies were randomized, points out Rebecca Robbins, Ph.D., who studies population health at New York University Langone Health. Randomization is considered the gold standard of research studies because it reduces bias; studies in which participants are not randomly assigned to one intervention or another are far less rigorous.

Additionally, Robbins notes that much more research is needed before sleep deprivation can be used as a treatment. "The findings have to do with short-term sleep deprivation. We know less about long-term sleep deprivation as a treatment for depression," Robbins told Newsweek.

Bottom line: Years of research supports that sleep is essential to restoring our minds and bodies. "We just generally see things go awry when we're sleep deprived," explains Robbins. When it comes to getting a good night's sleep, the less you stress about laying awake, the better.

Which leaves the essential issue of how not to become stressed about laying awake. "We can't will ourselves to sleep," asserts Robbins. "If you really want it, and you're really tired, it will come." And if it doesn't, there are plenty of scientific studies on sleep to help you drift off.