Sleep deprivation is the term for when you are not getting the amount of sleep that your body needs. We’ve all experienced it in mild forms; everyone knows the feeling of a groggy morning after a long night. But sleep deprivation can be a much more serious sleeping problem, especially when we are prevented from sleeping healthy amounts for an extended period of time.
Here are a few startling facts about sleep deprivation.
- The Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) most recent data estimates that over 35% of all American adults suffer from mild to severe sleep deprivation. In some states, like Georgia and Tennessee, that number is closer to half of the adult population.
- Amnesty International, among other advocates of peace, lists sleep deprivation as a form of torture. The CIA has been known to withhold sleep as a method of interrogation, infamously yielding dubious results during the war on terror.
- You can go much longer not eating than you can not sleeping. The record for not sleeping is eleven consecutive days, whereas fasts have been known to last up to and even over one year.
You might not be exposed to these extremes, but understanding how it affects the body and mind will help you to recognize whether you are sleeping the right amount, and reinforce the importance of a healthy sleep cycle.
How much sleep is a normal amount?
As mentioned earlier, sleep deprivation simply refers to instances where someone does not get enough sleep for their particular physiology. So what is the right amount of sleep? Every person requires a different amount of sleep, depending on their age, health and activity levels. The CDC recommends the following amounts for each age group:
- Newborns (0-3 months): 14 to17 hours per day
- Infants (4-12 months): 12 to 17 hours per day, including naps
- Toddlers (1-2 years): 11 to 14 hours per day, including naps
- Preschoolers (3-5 years): 10 to 13 hours per day, including naps
- School Age Children (6-12 years): 10 to 12 hours per day
- Teenagers (13-18 years): 8 to 10 hours per day
- Adults (18+ years): 7 or more hours per day
Though some individuals need less or more than these amounts, symptoms of sleep deprivation will generally set in when these benchmark amounts are not reached.
What happens when you don’t sleep enough?
When you deny your body the sleep it needs, you deny it the chance to carry out important functions relating to growth, brain maintenance and more. Therefore, the effects of sleep deprivation are what happens when your body cannot perform these functions over time.
When this happens, your body accumulates what is known as “sleep debt,” or time you owe your body to sleep. The larger this sleep debt becomes, the more serious are the effects of not paying it.
It is helpful to think about it in two broad categories: short term, and long term (chronic).
Short-term sleep loss
Short-term sleep deprivation is what it sounds like: a relatively short period of time where you don’t sleep enough, lasting from one night to several days. This can be due to any number of reasons and usually doesn’t have any serious long-term effects. However, short-term sleep deprivation can result in the following:
- Excessive sleepiness during waking hours
- Bad mood and irritability
- Forgetfulness and poor memory
- Failure to retain focus for a sustained amount of time
- Poor decision making
- Lowered reaction time for tasks such as driving
- Dozing off for short periods of sleep during the day (microsleeps)
Though these are not ideal conditions, the effects of short-term sleep deprivation can be overcome by adjusting back to a normal sleep schedule. Small amounts of sleep debt can be repaid easily.
Long-term sleep loss
Long-term, or chronic, sleep deprivation is a much more serious condition. Chronic deprivation can be classified as chronic when it lasts longer than a few days. Getting less sleep than you need for a long time can result in the following symptoms:
- Long-term memory problems
- Serious mood disorders, like depression
- Impaired immune system functioning, and increased chances of getting sick
- Increased feelings of pain
- Higher chances of developing chronic conditions like high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity
- Increased risk of stroke
- Increased risk of heart attack
- Lowered sex drive
- Problems with overeating and weight gain
- Wrinkled skin on the face and dark bags under the eyes
Chronic sleep deprivation can have extreme consequences and should be treated before it becomes a serious problem. Despite popular belief, our bodies never adjust to a lack of sleep. There will always be serious impairments to our mental and physical processes if we don’t sleep enough.
In extreme cases of sustained sleep deprivation where people literally do not sleep for days at a time, hallucinations have been reported.
What to do if you are sleep deprived
If you have sleep problems like short-term sleep deprivation, the solution is obvious: catch some Zs! You will likely sleep longer than normal to account for time missed, because like a regular loan, sleep debt accrues interest. Set aside a bit more time for sleeping if you know you need to catch up.
However, if you are suffering from chronic sleep deprivation, you will need to take some more drastic steps to restore your sleep patterns. Here are our tips for finding your way back to good sleep health:
- Diagnose an underlying condition: Most of the time, those who are chronically sleep-deprived suffer from some other sort of sleep disorder such as insomnia, sleep apnea or restless legs syndrome. Talking with a doctor to diagnose and treat this condition will be the single most important thing you can do to reclaim healthy sleep.
- Develop a consistent sleep routine: Try to fall asleep and wake up at the same time every day. Sleep habits will help your body develop the physiological mechanisms for sleeping normally. Meditation before bed can also help set the mood for sleep and help improve your overall quality of life.
- Change your lifestyle: Make sure you are eating healthy food, exercising every day and avoiding artificial light close to bedtime. Cutting out caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine will also be helpful. As much as you can, try to reduce stress in your life.
- Talk to your doctor about medication or therapy: Your doctor may recommend certain medications for sleep, or refer you to a specialist who can use therapy to improve your sleep health. Always talk to a doctor before trying new medications, especially if you have any pre-existing conditions.