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Sleep Deprivation: Effects, Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment
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Sleep Deprivation: Effects, Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment

Sleep Health
Read Time: 7 minutes

Have you ever gone to bed late and woke early for work, promising yourself that you’ll go to bed earlier, but instead repeat the same cycle?

This habit portrays sleep deprivation tendencies. Whether these habits are intentional or not, many feel that they can continue on with little to no sleep.

But sleep deprivation affects how a person functions throughout their day. For instance, a late night on the town followed by a 6 a.m. alarm can leave you drowsy and less focused during the day. You’re more likely to consume some form of caffeine drink to stay awake and less likely to eat healthy or exercise.

Although some health consequences may not make themselves known until years later, the internal damage caused by sleep deprivation is ongoing. To help you sleep better, we are going to cover common symptoms, the causes and effects of sleep deprivation, and how you can treat it starting now.

What is Sleep Deprivation?

what is sleep deprivation
Sleep deprivation is defined as someone who get less sleep than they need, affecting their mood, memory, and health. While not a specific disease, it can result in other illnesses.

Many individuals are affected by sleep deprivation. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1 in 3 adults fail to get enough sleep at night, making it a common problem in the United States.

Young adults are more vulnerable to the effects of sleep deprivation, but these effects are a real problem for older adults largely due to shift work. Also, as adults 65 and older continue to age, they tend to sleep lighter and for a shorter time span.

Less sleep results in higher sleep deprivation. When you normally sleep 7 hours a night but only get 5 hours of sleep on a regular basis, that shortfall increases your risk of health problems.

Stages of Sleep Deprivation

You may feel sleepy after a couple of days of going to bed late, but for the individuals who run on little to no sleep, here’s what they’ll experience as time goes by:

After 24 hours…

  • Drowsiness and irritability
  • Trouble with memory and concentration
  • Poor judgment
  • Short-term memory issues
  • Higher risk of accidents
  • Muscle tension
  • Increased levels of stress
  • Disruption of hormones regulation in the body
  • Increase blood sugar
  • Brain enters “local sleep” to conserve energy
  • Body temporarily shuts down neurons in some sections of the brain
  • Person may appear awake but face difficulty completing complex tasks

After 48 hours…

  • Sleep deprivation symptoms will continue to intensify
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Experience periods of microsleep – brief moments of involuntary unconsciousness that lasts a few seconds
  • Poor cognitive performance

After 72 hours…

  • Intense levels of fatigue and sleep deprivation symptoms
  • Poor motor skills
  • Depressed/irritable mood
  • Difficulty multitasking
  • Trouble communicating
  • Memory problems
  • Concentration difficulties
  • Increased heart rate
  • Paranoia

Studies report further effects of sleep loss. In 2010, a study was done in Poland at the University of Gdańsk to show the consequences of sleep deprivation. Subjects went through a period of six days of no sleep, with results showing by Day 6 participants were no longer capable of interpreting reality, also known as sleep deprivation psychosis. In 1965, a young adult by the name of Randy Gardner broke the Guinness Book of Records by staying awake for 11 days straight. After the incident, Guinness stopped certifying attempts to break Gardner’s record, believing it was too much of a health risk.

How Much Sleep Do I Need?

how much sleep do i need
The National Sleep Foundation states that adults should have 7 to 9 hours of sleep a night. Adequate sleep allows the body to recover from the previous day’s activities.

By establishing a regular sleep schedule, a person helps the body’s sleep cycle, or circadian rhythm to run without disruption. When a person doesn’t follow a set schedule and instead has irregular sleep patterns, it can cause disruption in the body and lead to poor sleep.

Some feel they can function just fine with little sleep, but the reality is you can’t. The body can’t even go one night before health problems start to arise. To avoid this, get a good night’s sleep – it may seem silly to have a set bedtime, but your quality of life will improve.

Symptoms of Sleep Deprivation

The main symptom in sleep deprivation resides in excessive daytime sleepiness; however, they can vary depending on the time of day and night. Symptoms tend to be worse at night because of the lack of natural light. During night time hours, your body signals the brain that it’s time to sleep.

Continuing to ignore that prompting can cause disruptions to the body’s circadian rhythm.

Other symptoms of sleep deprivation include:

  • Drowsiness
  • Irritability
  • Lack of motivation
  • Difficulty learning
  • Yawning
  • Clumsiness
  • Increased appetite and cravings
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Decrease in body temperature
  • Changes in mood and behavior

Causes of Sleep Deprivation

Consistent lack of sleep continues as a major cause of sleep deprivation in the United States.

Many individuals suffer from sleep deprivation voluntarily – they would rather attend entertaining events or complete educational goals. This habit resides more commonly in young adults.

Others may lose sleep because of work or caring for a sick child. Still, some sleep problems result from medication or an undiagnosed disorder. Either way, without proper sleep, the brain and body can’t fully function.

Continued sleep deprivation can lead to health consequences.

Caregiving

Personal obligations can arise that alter a person’s sleep schedule. A newborn, for instance, requires constant care, and any parent knows how little sleep a person receives during that phase of a child’s life. Other obligations like caring for an elderly person or an adult with a chronic illness requires a lot of time and attention, often resulting in irregular sleep patterns.

Shift work

Some jobs require night shifts or working late into the night. It may take some time, but making the appropriate adjustments can help you get the shut-eye you need. Those who try to stick to their same lifestyle may face insufficient sleep that can escalate into health problems.

Medical issues

Medical conditions and sleep disorders can prevent quality sleep. To avoid this, speak with your doctor and see about suggestions on getting better sleep.

Effects of Sleep Deprivation

Side effects of sleep deprivation can vary depending on the severity of the situation. Short-term effects can cause mild to moderate discomfort, while long-term effects may be more life-threatening. Medical problems, such as cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes are more likely to occur in individuals who continue to sleep fewer than 7 hours a night.

Acute Sleep Deprivation

  • Poor memory – less sleep doesn’t allow the brain enough time to consolidate memories from the previous day.
  • Weight gain – due to increase in production of cortisol, a stress hormone that affects the levels of ghrelin (hunger hormone – stimulates the appetite) and leptin (a hormone that tells the brain when the stomach is full). Higher levels of cortisol increase ghrelin and decrease leptin, resulting in eating more.
  • Impaired judgment – more likely to make impulsive decisions due to lack of sleep.
  • Aged skin – with less sleep, more cortisol is released. Cortisol breaks down the skin collagen, the protein responsible for keeping skin smooth.
  • Weakened immune system – with less sleep, less cytokines are produced, proteins that help protect the body against infections. You’re more likely to get sick with a slower recovery rate.
  • Discomfort, aches and pains – again, less sleep means less cytokine production. This protein is also responsible in protecting against inflammation. Also, less sleep produces more cortisol, making it harder for muscle recovery.
  • Changes in blood pressure, heart rate, and pulse – lack of sleep produces high amounts of cortisol which in turn increases blood pressure, heart rate, and pulse.
  • Drowsy driving/accidents/microsleeps – drowsiness leads to a slower reaction time and a shorter attention span, leading some to “zone out.”

Chronic Sleep Deprivation

As time goes on, consistent sleep loss can result in a dramatic increase of the following health problems. While sleep deprivation isn’t fatal, it can lead to life-threatening diseases.

  • Depression and mental illness
  • Stroke, heart disease, and asthma attack
  • Sleep disorders, like insomnia, sleep apnea, and narcolepsy
  • Diabetes
  • Hallucinations
  • Severe mood swings

What is Circadian Rhythm and Why is it Important?

Circadian rhythm is the internal 24-hour clock of the body. This natural cycle is responsible for feeling tired and alert at regular times during the day and night. When exposed to natural light, the brain produces less melatonin, keeping you awake and alert.

As sunlight fades, your brain increases its production of melatonin, helping the body prepare for sleep. Regular sleep habits, such as a set sleep and wake time, helps the circadian rhythm work best. Poor sleep habits, such as staying up late on your phone, can throw off the body’s circadian rhythm and send mixed signals from the brain to the body.

Treatment of Sleep Deprivation

chamomile tea for sleep
One of the most basic forms of treatment for sleep deprivation is getting healthy, regular sleep.

If, after maintaining healthy sleep habits, a person still struggles with sleep, it may be a sign of a sleep disorder. The best way to tackle this is to speak to a doctor or sleep specialist.

Practice Good Sleep Hygiene

Establishing good sleep habits can help improve sleep and decrease sleep deprivation. This includes setting a consistent time for sleeping and waking every day (including weekends), turning off all electronic devices and avoiding any blue screens an hour before bed, and keeping the bedroom cool, dark, and quiet. Good sleep hygiene helps provide better rest and improve overall health.

Consider Healthy Sleep Aids

Speak to your doctor first before taking any type of sleep aid. As a healthier alternative, it might be better to seek out supplements like glycine or magnesium, or drink a cup of warm chamomile tea, or other sleep teas before bed.

Keep a Healthy Diet

The foods we eat play a pivotal role in our quality of sleep. Some foods, such as chocolate, spicy dinners, and french fries, will hinder sleep. While other foods, such as kiwi or white rice, promote better sleep.

Next Steps to End Sleep Deprivation

Sleep deprivation has quickly become a common problem among adults. Whether voluntary or not, you need regular sleep to function at your best. Too often sleep gets sacrificed for other activities. After a while, the consistent loss of sleep, or sleep deprivation can put your health at risk.

To counteract this, we recommend setting a bedtime. It may seem childish, but a set sleep and wake time helps promote a healthier mind and body. We also recommend establishing healthy sleep habits like turning off electronic devices before bed and avoid eating heavy meals late at night.

If set times and good sleep habits still leave you tossing and turning at night, the problem could be internal. Stress is a huge factor in sleep disturbances. If you want to learn more about how to improve your night’s rest, check out our other guides.

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