Life can get in the way of sufficient sleep. Perhaps you have pulled an all-nighter once or countless times in college to cram for an exam or to write an essay. You may have worked the night shift or clocked in a grueling, 12-hour day of work that cut into your normal sleeping patterns.
In situations like these, you may have experienced the feeling of brain fog, dotted with periods of normal or almost normal brain function, followed by more brain fog.
You might be wondering how the occasional late night work session affects you. If you only get five or six hours a night, does it make a difference? How is a little sleep deprivation different than pulling an all-nighter and what does lack of sleep do to your brain and body?
What is sleep deprivation?
To put it simply, sleep deprivation means that you are not getting enough sleep. Sleep deprivation is not a disorder. Rather, it’s the result of lifestyle factors and illnesses. Each of these causes of sleep deprivation are associated with their own symptoms and poor health outcomes.
The inescapable reality is that our bodies need between seven to nine hours of sleep each night. If you are unable to sleep this number of hours, for example, due to work or life obligations, you may be experiencing sleep deprivation even if you don’t necessarily realize it.
Sleep deprivation is different from insomnia, the most common sleep disorder. Insomnia refers to the inability to sleep, despite sufficient opportunity and time to do so. Sleep deprivation, on the other hand, refers to shortened sleeping time due to external factors that restrict sleeping time, such as long work hours.
While sleep deprivation and insomnia are different, they can both lead to poor sleep quality and a host of problems. Sleep deprivation is associated with a variety of physical and mental problems including mood swings, memory and concentration problems, and lowered immune system function.
According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, about one in five people suffer from sleep deprivation.
If you think you might have sleep deprivation, we'll run you through some of the symptoms, causes, and physical effects.
What are the symptoms of sleep deprivation?
The symptoms of sleep deprivation can range from minor to downright scary. It is no wonder that sleep deprivation has been used as torture. Indeed, being deprived of sleep consistently can lead to severe emotional problems, paranoia, hallucinations, and delirium.
Commonly though, sleep deprivation leads to symptoms such as moodiness, fatigue, irritability, depression, forgetfulness, and decreased attention and an inability to concentrate. Clumsiness, lack of motivation, increased appetite, and decreased libido are all frequently encountered as well after sleep loss.
Sleep deprivation can also lead to tension headaches and what are called microsleeps. Microsleeps are tiny naps lasting for a few seconds; in a microsleep state, a person may fall asleep for up to 30 seconds, despite their eyes being open. This can be very dangerous, for example, during drowsy driving.
What are the causes of sleep deprivation?
Sleep deprivation can be caused by voluntary and unintentional behaviors. Personal obligations, working night shifts or split shifts, and medical problems can also cause sleep deprivation. New parents are often all too familiar with sleep deprivation.
Sleep deprivation can be caused by more serious problems. This includes sleep disorders such as sleep apnea, insomnia, and restless leg syndrome. You may want to consider visiting a doctor if you experience sleep deprivation for a prolonged period of time and are unable to sleep when you try.
Sleep specialists can rule out or diagnose any sleep disorders that may be causally related to your poor sleep in an overnight sleep study.
How does sleep deprivation affect the body and mind?
For the most part, sleep deprivation primarily manifests as excessive daytime sleepiness. This means that a sleep-deprived person is more likely to fall asleep when sitting still or in a monotonous situation, such as a meeting or class.
Sleep deprivation can be dangerous as it can cause workplace injury and automobile accidents. Insufficient sleep can also affect other various aspects of the body and mind including mood, performance, and overall health.
Other effects of sleep deprivation concern mood. Irritability, lack of motivation, anxiety, and depression symptoms are commonly associated with sleep deprivation. Sleep deficits can also affect cognitive function and impair behavior and performance on a variety of everyday tasks.
The performance deficits associated with sleep deprivation affect attention, energy levels, motor coordination, decision-making, and forgetfulness.
Sleep deprivation is associated with increased risk of high blood pressure, heart attack, obesity, and diabetes. Over time, severe chronic sleep deprivation can even be fatal. Learn more about what sleep loss does to the brain and body here.
Who is at risk for sleep deprivation?
Anyone can develop sleep deprivation. Adolescents, who are often balancing conflicting academic and work demands, are commonly affected by sleep deprivation.
Caregivers looking after a sick family member may also be sleep deprived due to the needs of their loved one who may require constant attention. People who perform shift work, work multiple jobs, or have demanding hours can also be at risk for sleep deprivation.
If you have a sleep disorder such as insomnia or restless leg syndrome, you may be at risk for sleep deprivation as well, due to the nature of your disorder. Finally, those suffering from a medical condition such as Parkinson’s disease that is characterized by insufficient sleep are also at significant risk for sleep deprivation.
What are the different stages of sleep deprivation?
The initial symptoms of sleep deprivation are not severe, but over time, chronic sleep deprivation can be very harmful.
The initial symptoms include drowsiness, inability to concentrate, impaired memory, reduced physical strength, and a lowered tolerance to infections due to impaired immune system function.
Over time, the symptoms of chronic sleep deprivation add up. These symptoms include an increased risk for depression and mental illness, as well as severe mood swings, increased risk for stroke and heart attack, and hallucinations.
Sleep disorders such as insomnia, sleep apnea, and narcolepsy are also much more common in people who are sleep deprived over time. The motor, psychological, behavioral, and cognitive deficits can be life-threatening under certain circumstances. For example, a chronically sleep deprived person is at a much higher risk of car accidents.
Is sleep debt linked to sleep deprivation?
Yes. Sleep deprivation occurring on the shorter term is not severe, but over time, the symptoms can be very harmful as one acquires a greater sleep debt.
In one study conducted at the University of Chicago, student volunteers slept four hours each night for six nights in a row. The study participants, at the end of the six days, had higher blood pressure and higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol, as well as preliminary signs of insulin resistance, which can develop into type 2 diabetes.
However, after the students “repaid” their sleep debt and slept enough, these changes were all reversed.
A longer-term sleep debt is much more dangerous, more difficult to repay, and can put sleep deprived people on par with people who do not sleep at all, cognitively speaking.
According to a study conducted at the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard Medical School, a long-term sleep debt can result in poor memory and reaction time — making everyday tasks such as driving very dangerous. After two weeks of accruing a sleep debt, participants in the study cognitively were in the same shape as people who did not sleep at all.
Luckily, it does not take much to repay your sleep debt. Acute sleep debt’s effects are quickly reversible and can be reversed over the course of a week. More chronic sleep debts, such as those accrued over months, years, or even decades, can take time to repay.
To get started on repaying a long-term sleep debt, start by dedicating more time to sleep than you typically would and then sleep every night until you wake up naturally.
How can I counteract sleep deprivation?
Sleep deprivation and its negative consequences can be mitigated by making more time for sleep and adopting various sleep hygiene practices.
The only way to beat sleep deprivation is to make sure you are sleeping enough — for most people, that means seven to nine hours a night of restful sleep. Sleep has many different phases, which is important to remove harmful toxins and help consolidate memories.
Sleeping the recommended hours each night ensures that your body undergoes all the phases of sleep each night, including adequate restorative deep sleep, and helps combat sleep deprivation.
Limit caffeine and cell phone use before bed
In order to avoid sleep deprivation and sleep problems in general, you may want to limit the use of caffeine and other substances and stimuli that can interfere with a good night’s sleep.
This also includes your smartphone and computer, which emit blue light that tricks your body’s circadian rhythms and can prevent sleep.
Make your sleeping space more comfortable to promote sleep
Stick to a consistent sleeping schedule by going to bed and waking up at the same time every day. Make sure that your bedroom is at a comfortable temperature that it is amenable to sleep, and create a relaxing bedtime routine, such as reading or meditation.
If you are having trouble sleeping, try to distract yourself for a few minutes, as the inability to sleep can actually cause more anxiety and keep you awake.
Sleep deprivation: Not getting enough sleep, due to an externally imposed restriction on one’s ability to get adequate sleep. Sleep deprivation is not a unitary condition and may stem from many other factors and diseases.
Insomnia: The inability to sleep, despite sufficient opportunity and time to do so. Insomnia is different from sleep deprivation.
Microsleeps: Tiny naps in which a person may fall asleep for up to 30 seconds. During microsleeps, a person is asleep, even though their eyes may be open.
Prophylactic naps: If you are experiencing a period of less sleep, you may wish to get extra sleep beforehand to compensate. This is known as taking a prophylactic nap.
Sleep deficit: The additive effect of not getting enough sleep. A large sleep debt may lead to mental or physical fatigue.
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