Loss of sleep is a common problem in our modern day society, affecting many individuals at some point in their lives.
Although occasional sleep interruptions are generally no more than a nuisance, ongoing lack of sleep can lead to excessive daytime sleepiness, emotional difficulties, poor job performance, obesity and a lowered perception of quality of life.
There is no questioning the importance of restorative sleep, and a certain amount of attention is necessary to both manage and prevent sleep deprivation.
This Medical News Today Knowledge Center article examines the consequences of sleep deprivation, along with what can be done to treat and prevent it.
Contents of this article:
Here are some key points about sleep deprivation. More detail and supporting information is in the main article.
- Around 59% of Americans get 7 or more hours of sleep at night, while 40% get less than 7 hours
- A person who has gone for even one night without sleep is as impaired as a legally intoxicated individual
- After only 16 hours of continually being awake, most individuals begin to show a substantial slowing of reaction time
- Because it is used extensively during normal waking hours, the brain's prefrontal cortex is particularly vulnerable to the effects of sleep loss
- The sleep-deprived brain may not be as capable of detecting positive emotions as a more rested one
- Sleep loss alters normal functioning of attention and disrupts the ability to focus on environmental sensory input
- Lack of sleep has been implicated as playing a significant role in tragic accidents involving airplanes, ships, trains, automobiles and nuclear power plants
- Sleeping less than 5 hours a night increases the risk of death from all causes by 15%
- Children and young adults are most vulnerable to the negative effects of sleep deprivation
- Sleep deprivation can be a symptom of an undiagnosed sleep disorder or other medical problem
- When you fail to get your required amount of sufficient sleep, you start to accumulate a sleep debt
- Sleep deprivation and sleep disorders are estimated to cost the US over $100 billion annually in lost productivity, medical expenses, sick leave and property damage.
What is sleep deprivation?
Sleep deprivation is when an individual gets less sleep than needed to feel awake and alert. People vary in how little sleep is needed to be considered sleep-deprived. Some people such as older adults seem to be more resistant to the effects of sleep deprivation, while others, especially children and young adults, are more vulnerable.
When an individual does not get enough sleep to feel awake and alert, they begin to experience symptoms of sleep deprivation.
The National Sleep Foundation (NSF) 2015 recommendations for appropriate sleep durations for specific age groups are:
- Newborns (0-3 months): 14-17 hours each day
- Infants (4-11 months): 12-15 hours
- Toddlers (1-2 years): 11-14 hours
- Preschoolers (3-5): 10-13 hours
- School-age children (6-13): 9-11 hours
- Teenagers (14-17): 8-10 hours
- Adults (18-64): 7-9 hours
- Older adults (65+): 7-8 hours.
After around 16 hours of staying awake, the body attempts to balance the need for sleep. If sleep is thwarted, the brain obtains sleep through short sleep attacks (microsleeps). This is an uncontrollable brain response that renders a person unable to process environmental stimulation and sensory information for a brief amount of time.
A person's eyes often remain open during microsleeps, but they are essentially "zoned out." As the nature of these attacks is sudden, for a sleep-deprived individual operating heavy machinery or driving, the consequences can be catastrophic to both the individual, as well as innocent bystanders.
Microsleeps will continue to occur despite an individual's forced attempt to stay awake, and because of this inbuilt sleep mechanism, it is extremely difficult for an individual to remain awake for more than 48 hours straight.
Learn more about why we sleep, including what happens to the body during sleep.
Causes of sleep deprivation
Shift work and demanding jobs can lead to sleep deprivation over time.
Some groups of people may consider sleep as wasted time and purposely deprive themselves of sleep in order to pursue other things such as entertainment, educational goals or money-making pursuits. This intentional sleep deprivation is most likely to be seen in teenagers and young adults.
Others may unintentionally not get enough sleep because of shift work, family obligations or demanding jobs.
Consistent sleep-wake patterns of going to bed late, frequent nighttime arousals or waking up early can lead to sleep deprivation and the accumulation of sleep debt.
Symptoms of sleep deprivation
The main symptom of ongoing sleep loss is excessive daytime sleepiness, but other symptoms include:
- Depressed mood
- Difficulty learning new concepts
- Inability to concentrate or a "fuzzy" head
- Lack of motivation
- Increased appetite and carbohydrate cravings
- Diminished sex drive (libido).
Complications of sleep deprivation
Sleep deprivation weakens the ability of the reasoning part of the brain (prefrontal cortex) to control the emotional part (amygdala), leading to the abnormal processing of emotions. Sleep also appears to be necessary to prepare the brain for learning; when the brain is deprived of sleep, it is difficult to concentrate and form new memories.
When we stay awake all night or significantly cut sleep short, the body does not release the hormones necessary to regulate growth and appetite, and instead an overabundance of stress chemicals such as norepinephrine and cortisol forms.
Research suggests shorter sleep durations may be a predictor of weight gain in adults and children. Each 1 hour reduction of sleep per day is associated with an increase of 0.35 kg in body mass index (BMI). These changes result in an increased risk for hypertension, diabetes, obesity, heart attack and stroke in the sleep-deprived individual.
Sleep loss can have a profound impact on both emotional functioning and normal thinking abilities in healthy individuals, resulting in:
- Reduced tendency to think positively
- Bad moods, a decreased willingness to solve problems
- Greater tendency towards superstitious and magical thinking
- Intolerance and less empathy toward others
- Poor impulse control
- Inability to delay gratification.
Sleep-deprived people are more likely to report increased feelings of worthlessness, inadequacy, powerlessness, failure, low self-esteem, poor job performance, conflicts with coworkers and a lowered quality of life. Many of these deficits remain even when alertness is sustained with stimulants such as caffeine.
Finally, sleep-deprived individuals present elevations on clinical scales measuring depression, anxiety, and paranoia.
Treatment and prevention of sleep deprivation
The good news is that most of the negative effects of sleep deprivation reverse when sufficient sleep is obtained. The treatment for sleep deprivation is to satisfy the biological sleep need, prevent deprivation and "pay back" accumulated sleep debt.
If you cannot get to sleep, experts recommend carrying out an activity such as reading until you feel sleepy.
Some suggestions for obtaining sufficient sleep through good sleep habits include:
- Going to bed when tired
- Following a routine for bed and wake-up times, keeping it consistent every day of the week
- Avoiding eating 2-3 hours before bedtime
- If unable to fall asleep after 20 minutes of trying, going to another room and trying to read until feeling sleepy, then returning to bed
- Engaging in regular exercise during the day
- Keeping the bedroom quiet, dark and a comfortably cool temperature
- Turning off electronic devices when you go to bed.
When you fail to get your required amount of sufficient sleep you start to accumulate a sleep debt. For example, if you need 7 hours of sleep nightly to feel awake and alert and only get 5 hours, you have a sleep debt of 2 hours. If you continue that pattern for five nights, you have an accumulated sleep debt of 10 hours.
The only way to erase a sleep debt is to get more sleep. Depending on how great the sleep debt is, it will take some time to fully recover. But positive effects will be felt rather quickly.
To pay back a sleep debt, it is necessary to start getting the sleep you need, plus an additional hour or so per night until the debt is paid. Afterwards, the required amount of sleep can be resumed without the additional hour.
If the sleep debt is hundreds or even thousands of hours, it still can be successfully reconciled with a conscious effort to restructure obligations, and allowing sufficient time off to recover. You will know you have paid back your sleep debt when you wake up feeling refreshed and do not feel excessively drowsy during the day.
If sleep deprivation is ongoing and negative symptoms persist despite practicing good sleep hygiene measures, consultation with a health care provider is recommended.
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Sleep deprivation can be linked to serious accidents, poor job or school performances and can substantially lower an individual's overall quality of life. Lack of sleep disrupts the brain's ability to balance emotions and thinking abilities, lowers the body's natural defenses and increases the chances of developing chronic medical problems.
While the occasional poor night's sleep is not a serious problem in itself, persistent sleep deprivation can be. There is no substitute for restorative sleep, and a certain amount of care should be taken to prevent ongoing sleep deprivation in individuals of all ages.