What are the effects of sleep deprivation?

    We've all been there, tossing and turning at night, watching the hours go by and dreading the alarm in the morning. But what actually happens to our bodies when we consistently miss out on our much-needed rest? Sleep deprivation, or the chronic lack of adequate sleep, is not just about feeling groggy the next day. It can cause a number of side effects that can impact our mood, health, and overall quality of life. In this article, we'll delve into what sleep deprivation really is, the potential repercussions it brings, and tips on how to avoid it. 

    What is sleep deprivation?

    Sleep deprivation refers to a condition in which an individual does not get enough sleep, either in terms of quality, duration, or both. This lack of adequate sleep can be occasional or chronic. The amount of sleep needed can vary by age and individual needs; for instance, while adults typically need 7-9 hours of sleep per night, infants and younger children require much more.

    Sleep can be disrupted for various reasons, including lifestyle choices, work obligations, medical conditions, environmental factors, or even certain medications. The occasional sleepless night might be harmless for most people, but chronic sleep deprivation can lead to a range of health, cognitive, and emotional problems.

    Is sleep deprivation the same as insomnia?

    While sleep deprivation and insomnia are related and often used interchangeably by many, they are not the same. Both terms describe sleep disturbances, but they differ in their causes, symptoms, and nature. While sleep deprivation is a consequence of not getting enough sleep for any reason, insomnia is specifically a sleep disorder where individuals find it hard to sleep or remain asleep, even when they have the opportunity to do so.

    What side effects can long-term sleep loss have?

    Long-term sleep loss, also known as chronic sleep deprivation, can have profound effects on both physical and mental health. The repercussions are not just limited to feeling tired, they can actually be cognitive, physiological, psychological and emotional. Sleep loss (or getting less than 7 hours per night) may have wide-ranging effects on the cardiovascular, immune, and nervous systems, including the following (Colten et al, 2006):

    • Obesity in adults and children

    • Diabetes and impaired glucose tolerance

    • Cardiovascular disease and hypertension

    • Anxiety symptoms

    • Depressed mood

    • Alcohol use

    What are the physical effects of sleep deprivation?

    Physically, sleep deprivation can cause a number of different effects on people of all ages. According to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, sleep deficiency is associated with numerous long-term health issues, such as heart conditions, kidney disorders, hypertension, diabetes, strokes, weight gain, and depression. Furthermore, a lack of sleep increases the risk of injuries among adults, teenagers, and kids. Elderly people that are not getting sufficient sleep might also have a greater risk of falls and broken bones.

    Sleep deprivation can also cause human error which can have traumatic consequences. For example, the Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster in 1986 which claimed the lives of 31 people is thought to have been partly caused by a lack of sleep among the workforce. Another example of human error related to sleep deprivation is the crash of American Airlines Flight 1420. Both the pilot and co-pilot of Flight 1420 had been awake for over 16 hours at the time of the crash, which saw the plane overrun the runway at Little Rock National Airport. This resulted in 110 nonfatal injuries and 11 deaths. 

    Natural disasters have also been caused due to sleep deprivation, including the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill in 1989. This disaster saw 11 million gallons of oil spill into the Prince William Sound in Alaska making it one of the largest environmental disasters in human history. The cause of the spill is thought to have been impacted by the crew not getting enough sleep. In fact, none of the crew legally should have been in control of the tanker at the time of the spill as they had not had enough sleep.

    What are the psychological effects of sleep deprivation?

    Sleep deprivation can have profound psychological effects. While an occasional sleepless night might result in feeling groggy or irritable the next day, chronic sleep deprivation can have more severe and lasting consequences. According to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, a lack of sleep can cause you to struggle when making decisions, solving problems, controlling your emotions and behaviour, and coping with change. Sleep deficiency has also been linked to depression, suicide, and risk-taking behaviour.

    Are the short-term and long-term effects of sleep deprivation different?

    Yes, the short-term and long-term effects of sleep deprivation differ in their symptoms and intensity. Here is a table that highlights some of the short-term and long-term effects of sleep deprivation (Medic et al, 2017):

    Are the effects of sleep deprivation the same in adults and children?

    While there are similarities in how sleep deprivation affects adults and children, there are also significant differences due to developmental, physiological, and behavioural factors. According to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute children who are sleep deficient might be overly active and have problems paying attention. They also might misbehave, and their school performance can suffer.

    It should be noted that after a night of limited sleep, everyone, regardless of age, felt sleepier in the morning than in the evening. When people do not get enough sleep, they feel less happy, excited, and energetic than when they had a good night's sleep. This is true for people of all ages. Early teens generally feel sleepier than adults after a regular night's sleep, but when sleep is cut short, all age groups felt equally sleepy (Talbot et al, 2011).

    How can you treat sleep deprivation?

    Fortunately, if you are suffering from sleep deprivation you may be able to reverse your fortunes. This can be quite hard to do, especially if you are suffering from long-term deprivation. Here are some tips that you can follow to help treat your sleep deprivation.

    • Focus on sleeping more & getting a higher-quality rest

    Focusing on both the quantity and quality of sleep is crucial in treating sleep deprivation and optimising overall health. Getting more (and better) sleep will help to return your body back to normal. It will help cognitive function, as well as physical health.

    • Prioritise sleep over other things (work, leisure etc)

    Prioritising sleep over work and leisure can be a pivotal strategy in treating sleep deprivation. It can also help to return cognitive function and physical health back to normal. This can be difficult however as some people may not be able to miss work to catch up on their sleep without booking time off. 

    • Customise your bedroom

    By customising your bedroom to be a more sleep-optimised space, you can help to treat sleep deprivation, especially for new parents (Lee et al, 2011). You may wish to change the temperature of your bedroom to be cooler (between 15-19°C), limit light exposure by using blackout curtains, and reduce noise by using earplugs or a white noise machine.

    • Avoid alcohol at night

    Avoiding or limiting the amount of alcohol you consume at night may help treat sleep deprivation, and can help to promote a better quality of sleep. While low to moderate doses of alcohol might initially promote sleep, chronic use is found to disrupt sleep-related physiology. This disruption occurs even among individuals who don't meet the diagnostic criteria for alcohol dependence (Stein et al, 2009)

    • Take shorter naps in the day

    For young, healthy individuals, shorter naps can indeed be a beneficial tool in addressing sleep deprivation. However, for older populations, more research is needed to determine the ideal duration and frequency of naps, and whether they can be used as a strategy to treat sleep deprivation (Mantua et al, 2018).

    • Avoid consuming caffeine in the afternoon

    Consuming caffeine, especially in the latter part of the day, can interfere with the onset and quality of sleep. Caffeine can, however, temporarily improve certain aspects of performance and mood affected by sleep deprivation (O’Callaghan et al, 2018), however, you should aim to avoid caffeine later in the day. 

    • Reduce screen time before bed

    Using screens for 1 to 2 hours in the evening is mainly linked with sleep restriction (meaning less sleep than needed). However, using screens for more than 2 hours in the evening is significantly associated with both sleep deprivation (not getting enough sleep) and sleep restriction (Hartley et al, 2022). Therefore you should avoid spending more than 2 hours on your phone in the evening.

    • Do more exercise

    Exercising more can help improve sleep. However, just improving sleep doesn't necessarily mean you'll exercise more. So, while exercise can be a good solution for sleep problems if you're already sleep-deprived, it might be harder to start or stick to a workout routine (Kline, 2014).

    • Get more sunlight in the day

    There is no significant difference in vitamin D levels between people who had insufficient sleep and those who slept a normal amount when both groups had low exposure to sunlight. However, those who slept excessively had lower vitamin D levels compared to those with normal sleep, even after considering other factors (Lee et al, 2020).

    Sources

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