Sleep Deprivation and Messages from the Graveyard Shift

By: Samantha Kostaras

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It’s normal to have days when you can’t keep your eyes open, you’re yawning every five seconds, and all you want to do is take a nap. These are usually the result of those equally impossible nights when you just can’t seem to fall asleep no matter how tired you are.

Burning the midnight oil every now and then won’t kill you, but chronically getting too little sleep can have some pretty serious consequences.

What is Sleep Deprivation?

Sleep deprivation simply means you’re not getting enough sleep. Needs vary from person to person, but studies have shown that most adults between the ages of 26 and 64 need about 7 to 9 hours of sleep a day to function at their best. 

If you’re getting by on 5 or 6 hours per night, you might not think it’s a big deal. But going to bed even just an hour or two later can mess with your body and mind. These effects can range from annoying, like causing an unshakable sense of fatigue, to something more serious, like putting you at higher risk of a heart attack.

Types of Sleep Deprivation

“Sleep deprivation” is a pretty loose term. Typically, it refers to having a shorter sleep duration or getting fewer of hours of sleep than recommended. Other types of sleep deprivation, which are now being coined as sleep deficiencies, refer to the quality of your sleep rather than the quantity.

Here are the main classifications:

  • Acute Sleep Deprivation: When you lose out on your normal amount of sleep for 1 or 2 days.
  • Chronic Sleep Deprivation: When you have sleep loss for a period of time lasting longer than 1 or 2 days.
  • Chronic Sleep Deficiency: When you have long-term, poor-quality sleep.
  • Insufficient Sleep Syndrome: When sleep is insufficient enough to negatively impact your health, safety, and quality of life.

Causes

Because sleep deprivation isn’t a specific disease with one root cause, many things can contribute to it. Typically, it’s either a symptom of another condition or the result of certain lifestyle choices and habits.

Sleep deprivation can be caused by:

  • Life transitions: Something as simple as a change in work schedule or becoming a parent can be enough to disrupt your sleep. Usually, these shifts are temporary, and your sleep will eventually go back to normal.
  • Aging: Sleep patterns change as you get older. Seniors over the age of 65 can have issues falling asleep due to medications or other health conditions.
  • Chronic stress: When you’re constantly feeling anxious or on edge, it’s tough to relax enough to fall asleep. Stress can cause you to change your sleep habits, make you more susceptible to insomnia, and increase your likelihood of developing other health conditions.
  • Medications: Some prescription and over-the-counter medications can have side effects that make it difficult to sleep. These include antidepressants, beta-blockers, and corticosteroids.
  • Sleep disorders: Sleep disorders like insomnia, sleep apnea, and restless legs syndrome make it difficult to get a good night’s rest. These disorders can be caused by other health conditions, genetics, or lifestyle choices.
  • Mental health disorders: Sleep disorders are common in those with mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia. Sleep deprivation can also worsen the symptoms of these disorders.
  • Medical conditions: Chronic pain, stroke, cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease are just a few of the many medical conditions that can cause sleep deprivation.

Symptoms

Sleep deprivation can cause a number of physical, mental, and emotional symptoms. These can range from mild to severe, and they vary from person to person.

Acute symptoms of sleep deprivation include:

  • Fatigue
  • Drowsiness
  • Memory problems
  • Irritability
  • Weakened immune system
  • Muscle weakness

Over time, sleep deprivation can lead to:

  • Hallucinations
  • Severe mood swings
  • Increased risk of accidents
  • Increased risk of depression or other mental illness
  • Increased risk of stroke and asthma attacks

Complications

Sleep deprivation is a common problem that can have serious consequences. Getting enough sleep is essential for your physical and mental health, and not getting enough can have a major impact on your overall well-being.

Sleeping less than 7 hours a night can lead to a number of complications, including:

  • Obesity
  • Heart disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Alcohol use

Skimping on sleep just to get more done is not worth the risk. Make sure you’re getting enough restful sleep every night to protect your health and improve your quality of life.

Diagnosis and Treatment

Because sleep deprivation is so complex, it can be tough to diagnose. However, many sleep specialists maintain that consistent daytime drowsiness and being able to fall asleep within just a few minutes of laying down are two reliable signs.

If you think you might be experiencing sleep deprivation, ask a doctor for help. They’ll likely refer you to a sleep specialist for further evaluation.

To diagnose sleep deprivation, your doctor may:

  • Conduct a physical exam
  • Ask about your symptoms
  • Review your medical and sleep history
  • Order a sleep study

After making a diagnosis, your doctor can recommend treatment options. These could be as simple as implementing some at-home self-care methods or as involved as seeking therapy for an underlying mental health disorder. Sleeping pills are usually not recommended for long-term use, but some medications can help with insomnia and other conditions that make it difficult to sleep.

Sleep Deprivation vs. Insomnia

It can be tough to tell the difference between sleep deprivation and insomnia. Both conditions share many of the same symptoms, and they can have similar effects on your overall health.

The main difference between sleep deprivation and insomnia is that sleep deprivation is usually caused by an outside factor that makes it hard to get your full 7 to 9 hours of sleep. Insomnia, on the other hand, is a sleep disorder that makes it difficult to fall asleep or stay asleep, even when given the opportunity to do so.

If you’re not sure whether you’re dealing with sleep deprivation or insomnia, consult with a doctor or sleep specialist. They can help you get to the root of the problem and find the best way to improve your sleep. And until then, you can try some of these at-home tips to get some relief.

  • Set a regular sleep schedule and stick to it as much as possible.
  • Avoid caffeine and alcohol before bed.
  • Create a calming bedtime routine.
  • Make sure your sleeping environment is comfortable and dark.
  • Limit screen time in the hours leading up to sleep.

Takeaway

Sleep is essential for your physical and mental health, and not getting enough can have a major impact on your overall well-being. Sleep deprivation can lead to a number of complications like obesity, heart disease, and high blood pressure. If you think you might be suffering from sleep deprivation, ask your primary care doctor for help.

Source List

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Cirelli, C. (2022). Insufficient sleep: Definition, epidemiology, and adverse outcomes. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/insufficient-sleep-definition-epidemiology-and-adverse-outcomes

Hanson JA, et al. (2022). Sleep Deprivation. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK547676/

Here’s What Happens When You Don’t Get Enough Sleep (and How Much You Really Need a Night). (2022). https://health.clevelandclinic.org/happens-body-dont-get-enough-sleep/

How Much Sleep Do I Need? (2022). https://www.cdc.gov/sleep/about_sleep/how_much_sleep.html

Insomnia. (2008). https://aasm.org/resources/factsheets/insomnia.pdf

Sleep Deprivation. (2022). https://www.cedars-sinai.org/health-library/diseases-and-conditions/s/sleep-deprivation.html

Sleep Disorders and Sleep Deprivation: An Unmet Public Health Problem. (2006). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK19961/

What Are Sleep Deprivation and Deficiency? (2022). https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/sleep-deprivation

Why Stress Causes Sleep Disorders. (2021). https://www.stress.org/why-stress-causes-sleep-disorders