An Overview of Sleep Deprivation

Sleep deprivation commonly makes you feel sleepy and less alert than usual. But a lack of sleep can also cause you to develop impaired memory, oversensitivity to physical pain, hallucinations, and many more effects.

The solution for sleep deprivation is usually pretty obvious—get enough sleep. When you have a hard time getting enough sleep, you may need to see a doctor to identify the cause of your sleep deprivation and get medical treatment if necessary.

common symptoms of sleep deprivation
 Illustration by Emily Roberts, Verywell

Symptoms

The effects of sleep deprivation vary throughout the day. For example, your symptoms will be worse during times when you would naturally be asleep (like overnight). And the longer you stay up when you are sleep deprived, the more you will experience the effects of sleep deprivation.

The most common symptom of not getting enough sleep is what you probably expect—feeling sleepy and drowsy. Some people describe it as a strong desire to fall asleep or a sense of feeling run down.

Some effects of sleep deprivation are less obviously attributable to your lack of sleep, and you can go weeks without realizing that your problems are, in fact, due to a lack of sleep.

Common symptoms of sleep deprivation include:

  • Mood and behavioral changes, which may include being short-tempered, anxiety, and depression
  • Difficulty concentrating, which can result in decreased reaction times, impaired work and school performance, and an increased risk of car accidents
  • Problems with higher-level functions, such as planning, organization, and judgment
  • Psychiatric symptoms of sleep deprivation include disorientation, hallucinations, and paranoia
  • Physical effects, such as generalized discomfort, aches and pains, and gastrointestinal symptoms, such as upset stomach or diarrhea
  • Disruption in the natural flow of the sleep cycle, which can affect hormones such as thyroid hormone and growth hormone, and can contribute to infertility
  • Changes in blood pressure, pulse, heart rate can affect your long term health
  • A small overall decrease in your body temperature (feeling cold)

Causes

Sleep deprivation, which is getting less sleep than you need, is based on your individual needs. If you need 9 hours of sleep to feel rested, you may feel sleep deprived when you get 8 hours of sleep.

You may experience sleep deprivation for one night, or for a stretch of weeks, months, or even years. And the less sleep you get, the more your sleep deprivation will affect you. For example, staying up an extra hour to watch a television show has less of an impact than getting only four hours of sleep.

Why You Aren't Sleeping

You might be staying up late and waking up early to catch up on everything you have to do. Parents of babies and young children are often sleep deprived. And people who have to care for others, like a sick child or disabled relative, are also prone to sleep deprivation.

You may also experience sleep deprivation due to a medical condition. For example, pregnancy, a stomachache, or an upper respiratory infection can make it very difficult to sleep. Some over-the-counter and prescription medications can interfere with sleep as well.

Anxiety, depression, and paranoia make it hard to sleep and are exacerbated by sleep deprivation.

Why Sleep Deprivation Affects You

Sleep has a key role in learning, and it helps us to consolidate our day’s events, solidifying and recording critical memories. When sleep becomes disrupted, alterations in the brain can cause these processes to become impaired.

Your body functions based on a 24-hour cycle called a circadian rhythm. This rhythm coordinates waking and sleeping time, as well as hunger, digestion, body temperature, and hormonal functions throughout the day and night. Sleep deprivation makes it hard for your circadian rhythm to function optimally, which impairs your body's overall functions.

Diagnosis

Most humans have similar sleep needs, which are based on age. While there are some variations between one person and another (of the same age), you can use average sleep requirements as guidelines to figure out whether you are sleep deprived.

Average sleep needs, based on age:

  • Ages 3 to 11 months need 12-16 hours of sleep per day
  • Ages 12 to 35 months need 11-14 hours of sleep per day
  • Ages 3-6 years) need 10-13 hours of sleep per day
  • Ages 6-10 years need 9-12 hours of sleep per day
  • Ages 11-18 years need 8-10 hours of sleep per day
  • Adults over age 18 need 7-9 hours of sleep per day
  • Elderly adults need 7-8 hours of sleep per day

Beyond the number of hours, sleep quality is also important. Sleep apnea, anxiety, and chronic pain can compromise your sleep quality, even if you are lying in bed for the "right" number of hours every night. 

Medical Evaluation

If you aren't sure whether you are suffering from the effects of sleep deprivation, it is a good idea to get professional help. Your doctor can identify some effects of sleep deprivation based on physical examination and diagnostic testing.

Common signs of sleep deprivation include:

  • Ptosis (droopy eyelids)
  • Sluggish corneal reflexes (blink reflex)
  • A hyperactive gag reflex (easily gagging during a throat examination)
  • Hyperactive deep tendon reflexes (brisk reflexes when your doctor checks your knee, ankle, or elbow reflexes)

Your doctor will also ask you how fast you fall asleep once you lie in bed. If you are sleep deprived, you will fall asleep almost immediately after putting your head down on your pillow. This is described as short sleep latency. Your sleep latency can be measured with a sleep study called the multiple sleep latency test (MSLT).

Treatment

Most of the physical side effects from sleep deprivation are relatively minor and, thankfully, easily reversible.

Once you get a good night's sleep or take a nap, you may feel better within just a day or so if you have only been sleep deprived for a few days. Most people need a bit longer to recover from sleep deprivation lasting for weeks or longer.

While you can catch up on sleep debt, it is not a good idea to have a habit of sleep deprivation, because it can affect your health.

If you have a medical problem, such as pain or cough, your doctor may give you a prescription to help ease your medical problem so that you can sleep.

Staying Alert

If you want to try to stay alert for a few hours until you can catch up on your sleep later in the day, there are a few strategies that can help. Moderate physical activity, pleasant lighting, enjoyable sounds (like music), caffeine, and doing something you are interested in can all help keep you alert for several hours until you can get some sleep.

Sleep Restriction

If you really are having a hard time getting enough sleep due to insomnia, one of the surprising solutions is sleep restriction. If you can avoid taking naps, you are more likely to sleep when you want to. For persistent insomnia, medications may be needed.

A Word From Verywell

Sleep deprivation can have important consequences on your health, and, in extreme situations, may even lead to death. While you can negate the effects of short term sleep deprivation, it is hard to know whether you can make up for sleep you lost months or years ago.

If you struggle to get sufficient sleep, talk to your doctor so you can get professional help with your sleep deprivation. Whether your lack of sleep is due to a lifestyle issue or a health issue, your medical team can help you come up with a plan so that you will be able to get enough sleep.

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Article Sources

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