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Many people do not get enough quality sleep, and this can affect their health, well-being, and ability to do everyday activities.
The right amount of sleep can vary from person to person, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend that adults get at least 7 hours each night. They also estimate that 1 in 3 adults do not get enough sleep.
Occasional interruptions to sleep can be a nuisance, while an ongoing lack of quality sleep can affect a person’s performance at work or school, their ability to function day to day, their quality of life, and their health.
This article looks at the effects of sleep deprivation and how to treat and prevent it.
The CDC recommend the following amounts of sleep in every 24-hour period:
|Age||Hours of sleep|
|4–12 months||12–16, including naps|
|1–2 years||11–14, including naps|
|3–5 years||10–13, including naps|
|18–60 years||7 or more|
It is important to consider quality, as well as quantity, of sleep. If a person has low-quality sleep, they feel tired the next day, regardless of how many hours they have slept.
Low-quality sleep may involve:
- waking often during the night
- breathing difficulties, such as sleep apnea
- an environment that is too hot, cold, or noisy
- an uncomfortable bed
A person who is getting too little quality sleep may experience a range of symptoms, including:
- mood changes
- difficulty focusing and remembering
- a reduced sex drive
Sleep deprivation can affect various aspects of health, including:
- The immune system: Sleep deprivation may cause a person to be more prone to infections, which may take longer to resolve, and respiratory diseases.
- Weight: Sleep can affect the hormones that control feelings of hunger and fullness. It can also trigger the release of insulin. Changes to sleep can cause increased fat storage, changes in body weight, and a higher risk of type 2 diabetes.
- The cardiovascular system: Sleep helps the heart vessels heal and rebuild and affects processes that maintain blood pressure, sugar levels, and inflammation control. Too little sleep may increase the risk of cardiovascular disease.
- Hormone levels: Insufficient sleep can affect hormone production, including the production of growth hormones and testosterone. It also causes the body to release additional stress hormones, such as norepinephrine and cortisol.
- The brain: Sleep deprivation affects the prefrontal cortex, which handles reasoning, and the amygdala, which deals with emotion. A lack of sleep may also make it harder for a person to form new memories, which can affect learning.
- Fertility: Poor sleep may affect the production of hormones that boost fertility.
Increased risk of accidents
A lack of sleep can limit the ability to:
- pay attention
- react quickly
- make decisions
A person who gets too little sleep may have a higher risk of drowsy driving, which can lead to accidents. In one survey, 1 in 25 adults in the U.S. said that they had fallen asleep at the wheel within the last month.
People should not drive or use machinery if they feel drowsy.
In the long term, having too little sleep may increase the risk of:
- diabetes or insulin resistance
- sleep apnea
- heart attack
- depression and anxiety
There are many reasons why a person may not get enough sleep. Examples include:
- shift work
- meeting deadlines
- a sleeping environment that is noisy or not the right temperature
- using electronic devices close to bedtime or keeping them in the bedroom
- medical problems, such as depression, sleep apnea, or chronic pain
- caring for another person during the night
Health issues that commonly disrupt sleep include:
- chronic fatigue syndrome
- chronic pain
- substance misuse
- bipolar disorder
- sleep apnea
- bruxism, or grinding the teeth
There are many ways to support quality sleep, including counseling, lifestyle and environmental adjustments, medications, and alternative therapies.
Sometimes, a person also needs treatment for an underlying health condition.
Behavioral and cognitive treatments
Some approaches that do not involve drugs include:
- Relaxation techniques: Meditation, mindfulness training, breathing exercises, and guided imagery can help reduce tension. Audio recordings and sleep apps can also help.
- Cognitive behavioral therapy: Known as CBT, this may help a person identify thought patterns that are contributing to limited sleep.
Some people find that sedative-hypnotic medications help. Some options available in pharmacies include:
- dyphenhydramine (Benadryl)
- doxylamine (Unisom)
If over-the-counter medications are not effective, a doctor may prescribe:
- zolpidem (Ambien)
- butabarbital (Butisol)
- temazepam (Restoril)
They may also recommend treatment for an underlying condition, such as anxiety.
It is essential to follow a doctor’s instructions, as some of these medications can cause adverse effects or be habit-forming.
Home care strategies
Changing sleeping habits and the sleep environment can often help. A person can:
- Try going to bed and waking up at the same times every day, even on the weekends, with the goal of establishing a routine.
- Avoiding eating 2–3 hours before bedtime.
- After trying to fall asleep for 20 minutes, get up and read, then try again later.
- Get regular exercise during the day.
- Keep the bedroom quiet, dark, and cool.
- Turn off electronic devices and keep them away from the sleeping area.
- Limit the consumption of caffeine and alcohol, especially close to bedtime.
- Avoid tobacco use.
- Use a mouth guard to manage bruxism.
If these measures do not help, a person should see a healthcare provider, especially if getting too little sleep is affecting the quality of life.
Some people find that devices help, including mouth guards, white noise machines, anti-snore devices, sleep trackers, wedge pillows, and other products. These are available for purchase online.
However, there is no guarantee that any of these will work.
There is not enough evidence to confirm that any of these therapies work, although melatonin has shown promise in older adults.
Always check with a doctor before trying any new remedy. There may be adverse effects or interactions with medications.
A doctor, possibly a sleep specialist, starts by asking about:
- how much sleep the person gets
- their sleeping habits
- causes of disruption, such as shift work
- existing health conditions and medications
Keeping a sleep diary can help a person provide detailed information, which can help the doctor recognize the full extent of the problem.
Useful information can include:
- when the person wakes up and goes to bed every day
- how much sleep they get
- whether they take naps and, if so, for how long
- a description of the sleeping environment
- activities leading up to bedtime, such as watching TV
A partner may be able to identify any snoring, gasping, or limb-jerking during sleep, which can indicate sleep apnea or restless legs syndrome.
The doctor may request a sleep study, or polysomnogram. This involves sleeping in a laboratory while a machine measures breathing, pulse, heart rate and rhythm, muscle activity, and brain and eye movements.
Sleep deprivation can harm a person’s mental and physical health, their performance at school or work, and their overall quality of life.
Also, a persistent lack of sleep can lead to complications or indicate an underlying health problem, such as sleep apnea or anxiety.
Anyone who is concerned about a lack of sleep should contact a medical professional.