Ask RBI: how does sleep deprivation affect me?Jun 25, 2022
No one enjoys the feeling of tossing and turning all night, finding yourself unable to sleep. And we’ve all dealt with the unpleasant aftermath of a sleepless night, struggling to get through the next day. But what happens if one sleepless night turns into several?
If you consistently struggle to fall asleep, stay asleep, or sleep enough nightly, you may find yourself getting sleep deprived. While one night without quality sleep is unpleasant, chronic sleep deprivation can have serious implications for our health. So today, let’s examine what sleep deprivation is, what effect it can have on our bodies and minds, and what we can do to sleep better.
What is sleep deprivation?
Sleep deprivation isn’t a specific disease or disorder, but rather the result of consistently not getting enough quality rest. Most adults should aim to get 7.5 hours of sleep each night. If you often don’t sleep this much, you may find yourself facing sleep deprivation.
While sleep deprivation is essentially a result of not getting enough sleep, we can further break down reasons why someone may become sleep deprived. Some factors contributing to sleep deprivation include:
- Aging. People older than 65 tend to sleep lighter and for less time than younger adults.
- Illness. People dealing with mental health difficulties, chronic pain, or other illnesses may find it harder to fall asleep or stay asleep.
- Stress. High levels of stress lead to increased body tension and anxiety, which can make it difficult to fall asleep and sleep deeply.
- Sleep disorders. People with sleep disorders like insomnia, sleep apnea, or restless leg syndrome will be at a higher risk for sleep deprivation.
While these factors can increase an individual’s risk of sleep deprivation, they are not the only reasons people may become sleep deprived. Sleep deprivation can happen to anyone. In fact, the odds of being sleep deprived have increased significantly over the past 30 years; more than 25% of U.S. adults reported having insufficient sleep at least half of every month.
With so many of us facing sleep challenges, it’s more important than ever to understand how sleep deprivation can affect our long-term health and overall wellbeing.
How does sleep deprivation affect my body?
At first, sleep deprivation carries with it minor symptoms. You’ve probably experienced these symptoms before after a poor night’s rest: drowsiness, difficulty concentrating, feeling fatigued.
But over time, sleep deprivation can become much more serious. While missing out on a single night’s sleep leaves us tired, consistently failing to get enough quality sleep has more serious consequences for our health.
Here are some of the long-term physical effects of sleep deprivation:
Have you ever noticed that you eat more when you’re tired? It’s not a coincidence - it’s science. Our appetites are regulated by the hormones leptin and ghrelin. When we don’t get enough sleep, our body’s production of these hormones is altered. The resulting hormonal imbalance encourages overeating, which can result in weight gain long-term.
What’s more, when we’re sleep deprived, we’re actually more likely to crave and consume high-calorie foods. Combine that with the fact that we’re also less likely to exercise when we don’t get sufficient sleep, and it’s easy to see the connection between sleep deprivation and weight gain.
Poor heart health
Sleep provides an essential opportunity for our bodies to recuperate after the day’s activities. This recovery period is important for many of our organs and bodily functions, but it’s especially important for our hearts. During the non-REM stages of sleep, our heart rate slows, our blood pressure drops, and our breathing stabilizes. This shift alleviates some of the daily stress we put on our hearts, allowing it time to recover from the strain of activity during our waking hours.
But when we don’t spend enough time sleeping, we reduce the amount of recovery time for our hearts. As a result, sleep deprivation has been linked to a number of heart problems, including elevated blood pressure and cholesterol, as well as heart attacks, stroke, and cardiovascular disease.
Getting enough sleep is crucial for regulating a number of key hormones in our body. We touched on hunger hormones leptin and ghrelin above; sleep also affects cortisol, estrogen and testosterone, and thyroid hormones, to name a few.
Cortisol - Cortisol is a steroid hormone produced by the adrenal gland. Known as the “stress hormone,” it regulates a number of other hormones in our bodies. Cortisol production follows our circadian rhythm, dropping to a low point as we head to sleep and spiking within the hour after we wake up. Sleep deprivation disrupts our natural cortisol production cycle, which can lead to other hormonal imbalances that affect our mood, our metabolism and digestion, our immune system function, and more.
Estrogen, progesterone, & testosterone - One of the key brain pathways sleep deprivation affects is our hypothalamic-pituitary axis. Hormones regulated by the pituitary, such as estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone, are dramatically influenced by sleep. Studies have shown that sleep loss leads to a decreased sex drive in both men and women. Low testosterone or estrogen levels can also contribute to weight gain and affect our mood.
Thyrotropin - Thyrotropin, the thyroid-stimulating hormone, increases when the body enters a state of sleep deprivation. This can lead to hyperthyroidism (an over-active thyroid), resulting in symptoms like rapid or irregular heartbeat, increased nervousness and anxiety, tremors, unintentional weight loss, and more.
Weakened immune system
Sleep deprivation doesn’t just make you tired - it can contribute to getting you sick. During sleep, our immune system releases cytokines, proteins necessary to help the body fight infection. If you consistently sleep less than you should, your body will have fewer protective cytokines, putting you at higher risk for infection.
How does sleep deprivation affect my mind?
Now that we’ve examined some of the serious physical side effects of sleep deprivation, let’s look at how a lack of sleep can also negatively impact our minds.
Here are some of the long-term mental effects of sleep deprivation:
If you’ve ever had a sleepless night, it probably won’t surprise you to hear long-term sleep deprivation can seriously impact our mood. A University of Pennsylvania research study found that limiting subjects to only 4.5 hours of sleep a night for a week left participants feeling more stressed, angry, sad, and mentally exhausted. When the subjects returned to sleeping normally, they reported a dramatic improvement in their moods. Sleep deprivation has been linked to a number of mood disorders, including depression, anxiety disorders, and seasonal affective disorder.
Plus, the connection between sleep deprivation and mood disorders is a negative feedback loop. Sleeping less worsens our mood, but a worse mood - feeling stressed, anxious, or depressed - also makes it harder for us to fall asleep and stay asleep.
Quality sleep is one of the most important factors in maintaining good cognitive health. Sleep deprivation dramatically influences our ability to acquire knowledge, interpret the world around us, and go about our day-to-day lives. In fact, a consistent lack of sleep affects every one of our higher cognitive functions.
Attention & Focus - Sleep deprivation commonly leads to brain fog and a difficulty concentrating on important tasks. It can also make it even more difficult to multi-task. This can significantly impair an individual’s ability to complete necessary day-to-day activities. Plus, an inability to focus impacts other areas of cognition, such as our memory. (If you can’t focus on something, you’re not going to remember it very well.)
Memory & Recall - Ever forgotten an appointment or struggled to recall information following a poor night’s sleep? That’s because sleep deprivation also influences our memory. Sleep plays a crucial role in supporting both our declarative (fact-based) and procedural (process-based) memory. When we don’t spend enough time asleep, we can find it increasingly difficult to recall key information, whether that’s a certain word to express our thoughts, an important date or deadline, or the steps needed to complete a task. Studies also indicate people with chronic sleep problems are at a higher risk for developing Alzheimer's disease.
Executive Function - Poor sleep makes it difficult for our brains to placekeep - essentially, remember what we are doing and in what order we need to complete tasks. This results in a decrease in our overall executive function, our ability to plan and execute important tasks. People suffering from sleep deprivation may find it difficult to follow instructions or complete once-familiar tasks. For some individuals, sleep deprivation can even lead to higher rates of procrastination.
Mental Processing - A lack of sleep leads to slower mental processing, making it more difficult for you to observe and accurately interpret the world around you. Slow mental processing has mental and physical side effects; sleep deprivation can even yield symptoms similar to drunkenness, significantly slowing our reaction times.
How can I combat chronic sleep deprivation?
There are a number of ways you can work to avoid chronic sleep deprivation and the many health issues it can lead to.
- Analyze your existing risk factors for sleep deprivation. If you are at a higher risk for sleep deprivation based on your age, existing medical conditions, or stress level, you may need to be extra-conscious of your sleep habits and sleep quality. If you think your persistent sleep issues may lead to sleep deprivation, discuss your options with a doctor.
- Allow yourself enough time for quality sleep. Make sleep a priority: put down the book, turn off the TV, and stop answering those late-night emails. Set aside enough time each night to sleep for a refreshing 7-8 hours.
- Establish a healthy sleep routine. Take steps each day to make it easier to fall asleep and stay asleep, like going to bed at a consistent time, avoiding late-night caffeine, and cutting out before-bed screen time.
Sleep deprivation doesn’t affect everyone the same way. People may experience long or short periods of sleep deprivation, and experience different symptoms and side effects due to their loss of sleep. Regardless, if you’re concerned your sleep problems are becoming habitual or severe, talk to your doctor.
Let’s get serious about sleep deprivation
Culturally, it can sometimes feel like we’re expected to burn the candle at both ends, sacrificing quality sleep for one of the many things on our To Do list.
But while one night without sleep is inconvenient, consistently poor sleep can have serious effects on our overall health and wellbeing. Most importantly, sleep loss also often feeds into different health issues that make it even more challenging to sleep, leaving you feeling trapped in a sleepless cycle.
All that is to say, sleep deprivation should be taken seriously - it’s a lot more than just feeling tired. If you’re concerned your sleep problems might escalate into sleep deprivation, or that you are already feeling sleep deprived, talk to your doctor today.
Want to learn more about how sleep affects your brain?
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