Sleep deprivation occurs when you do not get adequate or good-quality sleep. It can happen because you do not give yourself ample time in bed to get enough sleep, have trouble staying, or cannot fall asleep.
People can suffer from short or long-term sleep deprivation, and the causes can vary significantly. Adults suffering from sleep deprivation may have trouble staying awake during the day, focusing on the tasks at hand, and getting to sleep at night due to being overly tired. Chronic or ongoing sleep deprivation can lead to numerous health issues.
The condition may affect up to one-third of people in the US, with the numbers increasing in recent years. Sleep deprivation can impair judgment, slow cognitive processing and thought, reduce energy, and cause mood changes and short tempers.
Getting anything less than 7 hours of quality sleep is seen as being sleep deprived. The goal to prevent sleep deprivation is between 7 and 9 hours of quality sleep. However, sleep duration is not the only focus, as a person can get 8 hours of sleep a night yet still suffer from sleep insufficiency. That occurs when a person awakens at night, causing their sleep to be fragmented. If it takes a while each time to fall back asleep, or if they do not achieve deep, slow-wave sleep enough, they may still suffer from sleep deprivation.
Insomnia is not the same as sleep deprivation, although it can lead to that condition. A person who is sleep deprived does not have enough time to get adequate sleep, whereas a person with insomnia may have enough time; they just cannot fall asleep.
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Symptoms of Sleep Deprivation
In the early stages of sleep deprivation, symptoms such as yawning or feeling tired may be mild. Long-term sleep deprivation can lead to significantly worsening symptoms.
The most common symptoms of sleep deprivation include:
- Mood changes, irritability
- Poor concentration
- Dozing off during the day
- Constant yawning
- Inability to focus
- Slow reactions
- Mental problems
- Decreased strength/weakness
- Trouble fighting off viruses and infections
- Less interest in sex
- Decreased work efficiency and productivity
If sleep deprivation becomes chronic, it can lead to the following:
- Increased risk of stroke
- Severe mood changes, paranoia, suicidal thoughts
- Increased risk of asthma attacks
- Uncontrolled eye movements (nystagmus)
- Increased risk of depression or mental illness
- Possible life-threatening problems such as work or automobile accidents
- Onset or worsening of sleep apnea
- Increased pain sensitivity and intensity
- Hand tremors
- Poor judgment
- Reckless behavior
- Trouble speaking clearly
Sleep deprivation can lead to weight gain as you may need to eat more during the day for additional energy. Caffeine and sugar cravings may occur. As it becomes increasingly difficult to achieve quality sleep, the symptoms of sleep deprivation can compound into other problems.
Lack of sleep can have many effects on the body, including:
- Increasing blood pressure, inflammation, and blood sugar levels, which can lead to heart problems and vascular disease
- Causing changes in appearance, such as weight gain, obesity, and skin aging
- Weakening the body’s ability to fight off infections that can lead to serious health issues and decreasing the effectiveness of vaccines
- Causing mental health problems that can interfere with the ability to manage emotions and cope with stress
- Increasing risk of certain cancers, Alzheimer’s disease, type 2 diabetes, and stroke
- Causing problems in a relationship due to mood changes, fatigue, low sex drive, and for some people, infertility caused by changing hormone levels influenced by sleep
- Negatively influencing the ability to think, process information, concentrate, remember, and react quickly when needed
Leading Causes of Sleep Deprivation
Some causes of sleep deprivation are beyond our control, such as when medical problems or treatments make falling or staying asleep difficult. Other times, our actions can get in the way of getting a good night’s sleep.
Here are the most common causes of sleep deprivation:
- Personal actions: staying up late watching TV, reading, or socializing
- Mental health problems: including sleep paralysis, night terrors, sleepwalking, bipolar disorder, depression, panic disorder, fear of sleep (somniphobia), and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Chronic pain syndrome: the body may have trouble relaxing when in pain
- Illness: a cold or flu can keep you up at night coughing, sneezing, and having trouble breathing
- Serious medical conditions: cancer, stroke, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, long-haul Covid, concussions, and traumatic brain injuries can inhibit sleep
- Aging: often caused by changing hormone levels or medications, people tend to get less sleep as they age
- Medications: certain medications can cause insomnia, including those used to treat ADHD, epilepsy, stimulants, and corticosteroids
- Poor sleep hygiene: habits such as cigarette smoking, alcohol consumption, or caffeine close to bedtime can stimulate the nervous system and inhibit sleep
- Worrying: stress increases cortisol levels, inhibiting the ability to fall asleep
- Work obligations: long hours, bringing work home, frequent traveling (time changes), or shift work
- Sleep disorder: sleep apnea and snoring can cause waking and reduce quality sleep, as can restless leg syndrome
- Poor sleep environment: if the room is too hot or cold, noisy, bright, or if a partner snores, it can be difficult to sleep
- Different sleeping environment: often due to traveling
The cause of sleep deprivation often dictates the best treatment option. For example, if you are not getting enough sleep because you stay up watching TV at night, set the alarm on your phone for an earlier time and go to bed when the alarm goes off.
Here are some treatment options to help you get a better night’s sleep:
- Behavior and habit changes:
In addition to turning off the TV earlier, shutting down all electronics two hours before bed is recommended. Stop unhealthy habits at night, such as drinking alcohol, smoking, or consuming caffeine and sugar. Keep the room cool and dark to facilitate deeper sleep. Use earplugs, sound-canceling headphones, or white noise machines if the room is noisy or your partner snores. Finally, avoid daytime naps as they can hinder nighttime sleep.
It is not recommended to use sleep medications long-term, as they can become habit-forming and less effective over time. Some supplements, such as melatonin, might help. Various medications can have an impact on your sleep patterns. And it’s essential to combine medications properly to get good results. For example, if you are undergoing HGH therapy, do you know how melatonin supplements work with human growth hormone? Does melatonin increase HGH or not? Always consult a doctor, and do not self-medicate.
- Medical treatments:
Get help for sleep apnea or snoring that may include positive airway pressure machines, special pillows, mouthpieces, or surgery to widen the airway.
- Different supporting methods:
Deep breathing, massages, meditation, and other relaxation techniques may help you fall asleep.
Getting adequate sleep each night (7 – 9 hours) is crucial for optimal physical, cognitive, and emotional well-being. The best way is to create a nighttime routine with a set bedtime. Create a comfortable, dark, and cool environment. Avoid unhealthy habits and sleep medications. Exercise during the day to help reduce your stress and lower cortisol levels. Prioritize getting enough sleep and enact boundaries to ensure you get the sleep you need.
Occasional sleeplessness may not be a significant problem. However, if it continues to occur, it is crucial to seek medical help. If an underlying health issue causes sleep deprivation, speak with your doctor about how to overcome it. The sooner you start sleeping better at night, the more alert and energized you will be during the day.