Sleep Deprivation


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Written by James Dixon

Sleep is essential for us humans, yet many of us struggle to master it. James Dixon looks at what sleep deprivation actually means, the damage it is causing, and how you can manage it once and for all.

Sleep deprivation is a common problem that affects millions of people worldwide, which is troubling. It can have a direct and drastic impact on an individual’s mental and physical health, and on their cognitive and emotional state. Even a single night of insufficient sleep can result in drowsiness, poor cognition, low energy, and irritability during the day.

Though the immediate effects are more obvious, chronic sleep deprivation can increase the risk of various long-term health concerns. Understanding what causes sleep deprivation, the symptoms involved, and how we can treat it can go a long way to ensuring these health concerns don’t affect us too badly.

Sleep deprivation 101

Sleep deprivation is a term used to describe the condition of getting less sleep than the recommended amount. Adults should be aiming for a minimum of seven hours of sleep per night, while children and teenagers require even more.

man waking up suffering sleep deprivation

Nevertheless, getting the right amount of rest is not just about the number of hours of sleep one gets. The labels sleep deficiency and/or sleep insufficiency are more commonly applied to influences that diminish the quality as well as the quantity of sleep, or both, preventing you from getting up in the morning feeling refreshed.

For instance, if you sleep for a full eight hours nightly, but wake up throughout the night, fragmenting your sleep, you may be getting insufficient sleep, whether or not you are technically getting enough sleep.

Sleep deprivation and sleep insufficiency can be characterised differently, generally depending on an individual’s given circumstances.

Whilst acute sleep deprivation occurs over a short time span, generally only a few days during which sleep time is greatly reduced, chronic sleep deprivation can be defined as too little sleep over a period of at least three months. Chronic sleep deficiency or sleep insufficiency will generally be hallmarked by continuing sleep deprivation and poor sleep quality occurring through sleep fragmentation and/or other disturbances.

Sleep deprivation and insomnia are both linked to inadequate sleep, but they differ in significant ways. Individuals with insomnia struggle to sleep even though they might have ample time in which to do so. People who suffer from sleep deprivation may not have the time to sleep a full amount due to lifestyle factors and/or their obligations.

Although there can be similarities in how we might characterise sleep deprivation and insomnia, it is important to note that doctors and sleep specialists will often make use of more precise definitions.

Sleep is essential for good health and well-being. Lack of sleep can lead to a range of negative consequences, including impaired cognitive function, mood disturbances, and an increased risk of accidents and injuries. Chronic sleep deprivation has also been linked to a range of health problems, including obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and depression.

Therefore, it is important to prioritize sleep and take steps to ensure that you are getting enough high-quality sleep each night. This may involve establishing a regular sleep schedule, creating a relaxing sleep environment, avoiding caffeine and alcohol before bedtime, and seeking medical help if you are experiencing persistent sleep problems.

Causes of sleep deprivation

Sleep deprivation can be caused by a variety of factors, including poor sleep hygiene, work and lifestyle obligations, lifestyle choices, and sleep and/or medical concerns.

One of the most common causes of sleep deprivation is poor sleep hygiene. This refers to habits and practices that can affect the quality and quantity of sleep.

woman going to bed with phone

Poor sleep hygiene can be caused by several factors. These include using electronic devices before bedtime, consuming caffeine or alcohol close to bedtime, and sleeping in an uncomfortable or noisy environment. Habits like these can make it difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep, leading to sleep deprivation.

Lifestyle choices can also contribute to sleep deprivation. For example, people who choose to stay up late watching TV or work on their computer may begin to suffer with acute sleep deprivation. Inconsistent sleep routines can also make it difficult to get enough sleep. For example, people who stay up late on weekends and then try to catch up on sleep during the week may find it difficult to maintain a consistent sleep schedule.

Work obligations can also greatly impact sleep habits and sleeplessness. Those working several jobs or long hours may simply not be able to find adequate time to get the sleep they need. Shift workers working at night or taking on antisocial hours may also often struggle to get a healthy amount of sleep. This can lead to chronic sleep deprivation, which, as we have seen, can have serious consequences for their health and well-being.

Sleep deprivation can result from various sleep disorders or medical conditions. For instance, sleep apnea, which causes multiple awakenings during the night due to breathing difficulties, can affect both the quality and duration of sleep. Additionally, medical or mental health issues like chronic pain or generalized anxiety disorder can also disrupt the quality and quantity of sleep, making it challenging to fall and stay asleep.

Sleep deprivation symptoms

Sleep is an essential part of our daily routine, and a lack of it can have significant impacts on our physical and mental health. The chief signs of sleep deprivation can include mood swings and change in mood, as well as undue daytime sleepiness and cognitive impairment symptoms such as impaired concentration and slower thinking.

Symptom severity is dependent on the duration of sleep deprivation, whether it is chronic or acute. Stimulants can mask sleep deprivation symptoms, but they are not a substitute for sleep and can often make it worse. It is crucial to monitor how these stimulants make you feel to determine if you are getting enough rest.

Overall, sleep deprivation can have significant impacts on physical and mental health, and it is important to recognize the signs and take steps to improve sleep habits.

The signs that you are veering into sleep deprivation can include:

  • Yawning constantly
  • Dozing off when inactive
  • Morning grogginess upon waking
  • Grogginess throughout the day (sleep inertia)
  • Reduced concentration and alertness
  • Mood swings and irritability
  • Impaired attention span and reaction time
  • Poor judgement
  • Impaired spatial and situational awareness
  • Impaired decision-making ability
  • Impaired memory
  • Lack of motivation
  • Impaired work efficiency
  • Increased likelihood of mental stalling
  • Errors of both omission and commission
  • Dropping into microsleeps

Sleep deprivation: the effects

Sleep deprivation and deficiency can have serious effects on a person’s well-being, including an increased danger of suffering from common accidents and errors.

driver falling asleep at the wheel

For example, drowsy driving can result from the risk of microsleeps coupled with slowed reaction times, and it can obviously be life-threatening – both for the driver and those around them.

Additionally, individuals who are suffering with sleep deprivation may struggle to study at school or function fully in work settings. They may experience mood swings that can interfere with your personal relationships.

Chronic sleep deprivation can bring about a broad range of mental and physical health problems. If you regularly get less than seven hours of sleep, it can have negative effects on your overall health. Sleep is essential for your body to function properly, just like air and food. Your body repairs and restores itself when you sleep. Your brain also forms new connections and works on retaining memories.

If you are sleep deprived then you won’t function as you should, in mind or body, which can significantly impair your life quality.

Chronic sleep deprivation can also interfere with your body’s internal systems and cause more serious health problems beyond the initial signs and symptoms. It can lead to a weakened immune system, increased risk of chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease, and impaired cognitive function.

Your immune system generates cytokines and antibodies when you sleep. These protect your body against foreign invaders like viruses and bacteria. Additionally, some cytokines promote sleep, which enhances your immune system’s ability to fight off illnesses.

Insufficient sleep can hinder your immune system’s ability to build up its defences, which makes it more difficult for your body to resist infections and prolongs your recovery time. Chronic sleep deprivation can also elevate your risk of developing certain chronic health conditions, including heart disease and diabetes mellitus.

As sleep is essential for the proper functioning of almost all systems in the body, sleep deficiency has been linked to cardiovascular disease, metabolic conditions like diabetes, obesity, weakened immune function, hormonal problems, pain, and mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder.

Insufficient sleep has also been associated with a greater overall risk of death and a lower quality of life. Studies have shown that chronic sleep deprivation can increase the risk of early death.

Sleep is essential for the proper functioning of the central nervous system, which is responsible for transmitting and processing information throughout the body. Chronic insomnia may well interfere with this process, leading to delayed signals, decreased coordination, and an increased risk of accidents.

During sleep, the brain forms pathways between neurons that aid in memory retention and learning. Sleep deprivation can leave the brain exhausted, impairing decision-making processes, cognitive abilities, and creativity. It can also lead to imbalanced and swinging moods, impulsive behaviour, stress and anxiety, paranoia, depression, and suicidal thoughts.

Prolonged sleep deprivation can cause hallucinations and prompt manic phases in individuals with bipolar disorder. Microsleep, which is uncontrollable and generally lasts a matter of seconds, can occur during the day and is dangerous when driving or operating heavy machinery.

The respiratory system is heavily involved in sleep. Obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA), a breathing disorder that occurs during sleep, can disrupt sleep and reduce its quality. This can lead to sleep deprivation, making an individual more susceptible to infections in the respiratory system, including the likes of cold and flu-like symptoms, as they wake up multiple times throughout the night. Additionally, sleep deprivation may exacerbate pre-existing respiratory conditions, like chronic lung disease.

Lack of sleep can increase the risk of weight gain and obesity by affecting hormones that regulate satiation and feelings of hunger. Specifically, reduced levels of leptin and increased levels of ghrelin due to sleep deprivation can lead to overeating and night-time snacking.

Sleep deprivation can also cause fatigue, reducing physical activity and contributing to weight gain. Furthermore, sleep deprivation can lead to high blood sugar levels and insulin resistance, increasing the risk of obesity and diabetes mellitus by causing less insulin to be released after each meal.

Insufficient sleep can have negative effects on various processes that help to maintain blood vessel and heart health, such as blood pressure, blood sugar regulation, and levels of inflammation. Additionally, sleep plays a crucial role in the body’s capability of maintaining and healing the heart and blood vessels. Lack of sleep has been linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, with insomnia being associated with a higher risk of stroke and heart attack.

Hormone production, including testosterone and growth hormone, is also dependent on sleep. Interruptions in sleep can impact healthy hormone production, which can impact muscle mass, cell and tissue repair, and additional growth functions. Sufficient sleep and physical activity are both important for growth hormone release, which is produced by the pituitary gland throughout the day.

Treating sleep deprivation

As a first step in overcoming sleep deprivation, we should all aim at getting enough shut eye. This should typically be around seven to nine hours nightly. Obviously, though, this isn’t always easy to do – if it was, there likely wouldn’t be a need for articles like this one!

As we have seen, sleep deprivation can have a range of negative effects on the body, including fatigue, irritability, difficulty concentrating, memory problems, and an increased risk of accidents. After a certain point, getting more sleep may not be enough to combat the effects of sleep deprivation.

In such cases, medical intervention may be necessary – a sleep specialist will be able to identify and properly help you to overcome sleep disorder.

Sleep disorders are a common cause of sleep deprivation. They may present challenges as you try to get enough high-quality sleep. Additionally, they can heighten your susceptibility to the above consequences of sleep deprivation on the body.

These are amongst most common forms of sleep disorder:

  • Obstructive sleep apnoea: a condition in which the airway becomes blocked during sleep, causing breathing to stop and start repeatedly.
  • Narcolepsy: a disorder that causes excessive daytime sleepiness and sudden sleep attacks.
  • Restless leg syndrome: a condition that causes an uncomfortable sensation in the legs, which can make it difficult to fall asleep.
  • Insomnia: a condition in which you have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep.
  • Circadian rhythm disorders: a group of disorders that affect the body’s internal clock, causing sleep problems.

Your healthcare provider may request a sleep study as part of the diagnostic process. This will usually take place within a formal sleep centre. However, these days it’s also possible to obtain a fair amount of usable data from patients remotely, as they sleep at home.

woman sleeping peacefully in bed

If you’re diagnosed with a sleep disorder, you may be given medication or a device to keep your airway open at night (as is the case with obstructive sleep apnoea) to help combat the disorder so that you can get a better night’s sleep on a regular basis.

In case of a sleep disorder diagnosis, you might receive medication or a device to keep your airway open at night. This helps to alleviate the disorder and enables you to have regular, restful sleep. This is often the case for obstructive sleep apnoea.

To avoid sleep deprivation, it is obviously important to get enough sleep. Aim for seven to nine hours, which is appropriate for most adults.

Additional tips for maintaining a healthy sleep routine include cutting down on naps during the day, avoiding caffeine for a few hours before going to bed, going to bed and getting up at about the same time daily (including during the weekend), engaging in relaxing activities before bed, steering clear of large meals and electronic devices before bedtime, maintaining an active lifestyle (without training too late at night), and cutting down on your alcohol consumption.

By following these tips, you can improve the quality of your sleep and reduce your risk of sleep deprivation. If symptoms of troubled sleeping persist, talk to your healthcare provider or a sleep specialist to determine if there is an underlying sleep disorder that needs to be addressed. With the right treatment, you can get the restful sleep you need to feel your best.