Sleep deprivation is an issue many people face on a daily basis. It is so ubiquitous that many people accept it as a part of their life, treating it as a necessary byproduct of their work schedule or social life. As a result of this neglect, those people may experience a drop in performance at work, become more irritable in social settings and generally don’t function optimally. They are also more susceptible to various illnesses that can make the situation worse. The worst part of this scenario is that a lot of people are not aware of their sleep deprivation, which can lead to safety risks (especially related to traffic and drowsy driving).
Preventing sleep deprivation entirely is practically impossible. Too many factors can contribute to it, and it’s very easy to get caught in a loop of inadequate sleep. The best you can realistically hope for is to minimize the effects of sleep deprivation and deal with underlying issues that cause it. We’ve made this article to offer as much information as you need to make lifestyle changes that can help you fight off sleep deprivation and avoid the plethora of risks and consequences that come along with it.
What Causes Sleep Deprivation?
The obvious answer is simply inadequate time spent resting. Adults need at least eight hours of uninterrupted sleep to achieve optimal performance the next day. However, it can be very hard to maintain a healthy sleep schedule thanks to our daily habits. Inadequate sleep can be a frequent problem even if the person is otherwise completely healthy, but the resulting sleep deprivation can cause completely unrelated health issues thanks to our now weakened immune system. We will list several common reasons people lose out on much-needed sleeping time so that you can look out for these behaviors or issues in your daily life:
– Heavy intake of caffeine and other stimulants can disrupt your sleep schedule. If you drink enough coffee or tea or eat enough chocolate, it may prevent you from falling asleep when you need it the most. Alcohol helps you fall asleep faster, but its effects on your melatonin production and general immune system ruin the restorative properties of sleep.
– Shift work is bad for your sleep-wake cycle. Working the night shift or constantly having to shuffle your schedule around while working changing shifts has negative consequences for your health. Being forced to sleep during the day can lead to drowsy driving and similar sources of danger.
– Almost if not every sleep disorder will destroy your natural sleep rhythm. From disorders like nocturnal leg cramps that keep waking you up through pain, to something like obstructive sleep apnea or narcolepsy, you will often have to deal with fatigue at some point during the day. Not to mention that prescription or OTC (over the counter) medication meant to treat these disorders can cause further problems and keep you constantly tired.
– Any hobby or social commitment that frequently tempts you to stay up late or reverse your sleep schedule (or anything like that) is damaging to your daily levels of rest. Try to organize your time, so you don’t have to sacrifice sleep to engage in your personal interests, or change your hobbies to something that lets you rest properly.
– Staring at screens during intended bedtime is disastrous. Even your phone can be enough to sabotage proper melatonin production and keep you awake for way longer than you should be. If your schedule depends on you getting up in the early morning, this bad habit can lead to some serious fatigue levels, which affects how well you perform at work and so on.
Almost everyone can name additional causes in their lifestyle if they think hard enough. Because potential sleep disruption factors are everywhere, it pays to live in such a way that you’re not sabotaging yourself more than is necessary for work. Otherwise, you face:
The Consequences of Sleep Deprivation
Most of the consequences we will talk about have to do with how fatigue affects your daily life and your body. Depending on whether you’re facing a sleep disorder or not, additional problems may be added on top. If you experience major discomfort and you think the cause might be sleep-related, contact your primary care physician as soon as possible. Let’s look at the list of potential consequences:
– Sleep schedule disturbance is a very common result of sleep deprivation. Whether you take a nap during the day and push your biological clock out of sync or you’re running on 6 or fewer hours of sleep, it could have a long-term effect on your sleeping habits which then causes additional problems. If you wake up frequently during the night as a result of sleep disorders or child care, your sleep architecture gets ruined. Sleep architecture is the natural progression of sleep through stages, and your body calculates its architecture. If you keep waking up constantly, you don’t get enough deep and REM sleep. Those stages are crucial for strengthening your immune system, consolidating memories and preparing your mind for the following day. Without them, even something like damaged muscle tissue (from intense exercise) takes longer to heal, causing aches and pains.
– You become more prone to accidents as your mind isn’t in good condition. The Three Mile Island accident was partially attributed to sleep deprivation among the workforce, so inadequate sleep can clearly have catastrophic effects. Shift workers get it the worst, as their horrible sleep schedule makes them increasingly vulnerable to not just workplace accidents, but drowsy driving-related injuries and risks. Fatigue has immense negative effects on a series of mental faculties, such as your reaction time and attention to detail, how much information you get from your surroundings, how likely you are to take risks and be aggressive or irritated, etc. In fact, while you’re driving, not getting enough rest is equally as risky (and punishable by law) as drunk driving, that’s how severe it can be. Not every accident is lethal or even particularly dangerous, obviously, but if there’s even the smallest chance that your fatigue could result in a potential injury or death, it means you become a walking health hazard at your workplace, not just for you, but for everyone.
– You become worse at solving many tasks, as a result of your fatigue’s effects on your mind. The effect can manifest in different ways. For example, in tasks where test subjects had enough time, their cognitive function slowed down, and they took way longer to perform their duty than usual. Because of your inability to focus properly, the longer a task goes on, the worse your performance can become. On the other hand, time-limited tasks pushed the subjects to make a lot more cognitive errors, leading researchers to believe that fatigue lessens our ability to handle the pressure of almost any kind. In this study, 48 healthy subjects were made to sleep for 4, 6 or 8 hours, randomized. The tests they performed afterward showed a startling result; sleeping for 6 hours or less is almost as impairing as not sleeping at all for roughly two whole nights. As an example, drowsy driving is legally punishable if the driver hasn’t slept for 24 hours before stepping on the gas. But if a sleep duration of 6 hours or less is almost as bad as 48 hours of complete sleep deprivation, then you can encounter risks very easily even if you think you’ve slept enough.
– You may experience involuntary microsleeps. Lapses in consciousness can sometimes go by completely undetected by you or surrounding people, but they can occur during incredibly dangerous moments and threaten the safety of both you and anyone in the vicinity, especially while driving. If these happen frequently, visit your doctor as soon as possible, because it may be linked to a myriad of sleep disorders, most notably narcolepsy.
– Because your immune system is weakened, the risk of developing various illnesses and conditions grows exponentially. From the common cold to a whole host of sleeping disorders, most conditions have a nasty habit of further affecting your sleep schedule and the amount of rest you get from sleeping. Thus, a vicious circle forms. You don’t get enough sleep, which causes you to get ill. Your illness prevents you from sleeping properly, which can result in long-term problems.
– Your mood gets ruined. People who are suffering from fatigue become much more irritable and aggressive. On top of causing reckless behavior, this mood change can negatively impact their social life and stress levels. Stress is one of, if not the main contributing factor to a variety of sleep disorders and other neurological conditions, some of which can also disturb your sleeping partner if you have one.
Sleep Deprivation and Its Effect on Children and Teens
While it may surprise some of you reading, children are actually more vulnerable to sleep deprivation than adults. At least 40 percent of kids in elementary school reported having some sort of sleeping problem. 10% of kids had excessive daytime sleepiness, and another 15% showcased bedtime resistance. Bedtime resistance is a term used for when your child stalls or avoids going to bed and has been a pediatric issue for a long time.
Around 50 percent of teens report having difficulties falling or staying asleep occasionally — 13 percent report having insomnia and similar issues. Sleeping problems cause lowered academic performance, disrupt their social lives and can even affect their self-image and likelihood of depression. Additionally, sleep deprivation has been shown to cause problematic behavior, both at school and home. Conditions like ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) and learning difficulties have also been connected to a regular lack of sleep.
How Can You Detect Sleep Deprivation or Sleep Debt?
Sleep debt is what its name implies – a measure of how much you didn’t sleep when you should have. While not a disorder in itself, it’s linked to many health conditions. The best way to track how sleep-deprived you are is to visit a sleep lab. Sleep experts have a method called multiple sleep latency test. They measure how easily you fall asleep when forced to take a series of 20-minute naps. The idea is that a person with a lot of sleep debt banked up will have no issues quickly falling asleep, whereas someone with a healthy and regular sleep schedule will take way longer, usually around 15 minutes. This test is very effective at detecting sleep deprivation, and it’s often used to test for excessive daytime sleepiness or narcolepsy.
If you don’t have the time or money for a full sleep lab investigation, you can use a couple of tried-and-true home methods to get a solid idea. Some experts say that needing an alarm clock to wake up early enough for work (or any other relevant activity) is already a sign of sleep deprivation. You can resort to sleep tracking (usually by using an app or keeping a sleep journal) to take notes on how fast it takes you to fall asleep. The less time it takes to drift off, the more likely it is you have sleep deprivation issues. The same goes for daytime naps. If you’re a worried parent, make sure to talk to your child about their sleeping habits and how they feel. Otherwise, they likely won’t report sleeping problems themselves, unless it’s something that scares them or they’re sick.
Co-founder of Counting Sheep and Sleepaholic