What is sleep deprivation?
Everyone is familiar with the feeling of being tired. That can happen at the end of a long day when it's time to go to bed. Or you might feel tired if you've been working hard and not taking enough time to rest. When you're tired, what your body needs most is sleep.
Sleep is an integral part of good health. Sleep deprivation is a condition that specifically refers to not getting enough sleep. Most adults need 7–8 hours of sleep per night. Getting enough rest helps with energy, mood, mental alertness, and general physical health. Sleep deficiency is a broader concept that also encompasses things like poor sleep and disrupted sleep.
During sleep, your body does important things like repairing blood vessels and creating neural pathways. Sleep helps regulate certain hormone levels, such as insulin. In children and teens, deep sleep triggers the release of growth hormones responsible for healthy development.
When you don't get enough sleep, your physical and mental health can suffer. Over time, sleep deprivation can lead to depression, fatigue, memory problems, and decreased ability to fight off illnesses.
Symptoms of sleep deprivation
Sleep deprivation is what happens when you don't get enough sleep. You may notice several effects of sleep deprivation. Some symptoms include:
You might wake up and not feel well-rested in the morning. Drowsiness and physical exhaustion are common. You may be tempted to doze off, even if a nap wouldn't be appropriate.
Inability to focus
You may find that you can't concentrate or you have trouble remembering things. You might have difficulty making decisions and solving problems. You might miss important details on school or work projects. Reaction times also suffer, which can be dangerous.
Sleep deprivation can be associated with an increased risk of depression in the long-term. Day-to-day, you might be irritable or experience mood swings when you don’t sleep enough.
When sleep deprivation goes on for more than a few days, your overall health can start to suffer. Chronic sleep deprivation is linked to heart health problems like high blood pressure, heart attack, and stroke. Sleep-deprived people are at a higher risk for car accidents. Lack of sleep can weaken your immune system as well.
In extreme cases, sleep deprivation can lead to severe mood swings and hallucinations.
Causes of sleep deprivation
Sleep deprivation is fairly common. There are a lot of reasons that you may not get the sleep you need. Some of the most common causes of sleep deprivation include:
Conditions like sleep apnea, insomnia, narcolepsy, and restless leg syndrome interfere with sleep. Sleep apnea is a condition where you stop breathing for short times during sleep. Insomnia is a sleep disorder that affects your ability to fall asleep and stay asleep.
Stress and overwork can lead to skipping needed sleep or an irregular sleep schedule. People who work night shifts may not be able to get enough sleep during the day. Caring for a new baby or a sick family member is also a common cause of lost sleep.
When to see a doctor for sleep deprivation
If lack of sleep is an on-going problem for you and you find that being tired is interfering with your daily life, you should speak to your doctor. You should also talk to your doctor if you can't fall asleep or stay asleep.
Diagnosing sleep deprivation
Your doctor will ask about your sleep habits to get an idea of how much sleep you typically get. They will also want to know about your lifestyle, such as your work hours, family situation, and other factors that can affect sleep.
Your doctor will ask about health issues that might be causing your sleep problems. Some medications can cause sleeplessness, so they will likely ask about that.
Your doctor might suggest that you need a sleep study. A sleep study is a test where you have sensors attached to your body to track your vital signs during sleep. The results can help your doctor figure out the cause of your sleep problems. Sleep studies are often used to diagnose and monitor sleep-related breathing disorders, like sleep apnea.
Treatments for sleep deprivation
In some cases, you can get more sleep by making lifestyle changes. Some solutions for sleep deprivation include:
- Get more exercise.
- Avoid caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol, which can disrupt sleep patterns.
- Set a regular schedule for sleeping and waking.
- Make sure your bedroom is quiet, dark, and at a comfortable temperature.
If these solutions don’t help enough, your doctor might prescribe sleeping pills. Medication is usually only effective in the short-term, and it can start interfering with your sleep over time.
If you have sleep apnea you may need a continuous positive air pressure (CPAP) machine to manage your symptoms. A doctor can help you with this.
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Johns Hopkins Medicine: "Sleep Deprivation."
National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute: "Sleep Apnea."
National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute: "Sleep Deprivation and Deficiency."
National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute: "Sleep Studies."
Sleep Foundation: "What Causes Insomnia?"