Sticking to a regular sleep schedule is one of the best things we can do to stay healthy. Adults need at around 7 to 9 hours of sleep every night in order to function properly, but generally speaking short intervals of sleep deprivation are normal as we move through life. However, if you are getting less than 7 hours consistently over long periods of time, that could have lasting consequences on your overall health and wellbeing. Keep reading to learn more about sleep deprivation, why it happens and what could happen if you're not getting enough sleep.
What is sleep deprivation?
Sleep deprivation is an umbrella term that covers any voluntary or involuntary lack of sleep as well as any disorders that interrupt our circadian rhythms. If you're getting less than the recommended minimum of 7 hours of sleep a night, you are likely sleep deprived.
There are five stages of sleep deprivation which can be divided into 12 or 24 hour periods.
Stage one: 24 hours without sleep. 24 hours without sleep is common and won't cause any major damage to your overall health and wellbeing. People who go 24 hours without sleep are sluggish, tired and irritable, and at this stage it is already dangerous to drive. The CDC likens 24 hours with no sleep to have a similar effect on the body as a blood alcohol level of 0.10.
Stage two: 36 hours without sleep. After 36 hours without adequate sleep, the body develops an overwhelming desire to sleep. The symptoms of stage one intensify, and you may begin to have micro sleeps (little sleeps lasting around 30 seconds). After 36 hours, the brain struggles to send messages to the body and you may start to experience impaired memory and decision making, slow reaction time and impaired immune function.
Stage three: 48 hours without sleep. After two days, the body's urge to sleep intensifies and micro sleeps become more common. You may start hallucinating, or experience heightened stress, anxiety and increased irritability. After 48 hours without sleep, this can be considered extreme sleep deprivation.
Stage four: 72 hours without sleep. After three days without sleep, hallucinations may become more detailed or complex, and you may begin to experience disordered thinking or depersonalisation.
Stage five: 96 hours or more without sleep. After four days, the urge to sleep will be extremely strong and you may find that your perception of reality is severely warped. You may also start suffering from sleep deprivation psychosis, which occurs when a lack of sleep causes you to have trouble interpreting reality. Luckily, sleep deprivation psychosis usually ends once you get enough sleep.
What causes sleep deprivation?
Sleep deprivation is normal as we endure the highs and lows of life. Some common causes of sleep deprivation include:
- Personal choice: Sometimes we prioritise other things over a good night's sleep including; socialising, television, school work or house work/chores.
- Anxiety or stress: Symptoms of anxiety such as accelerated heart rate and racing thoughts can often be the cause for bouts of insomnia, resulting in low quality sleep or trouble falling asleep.
- Illnesses: When we get sick, especially with illnesses that cause body pains or congestion of the airways we are more likely to experience fragmented, lower quality sleep.
- Sleep disorders: Chronic sleep disorders such as sleep apnoea, insomnia or snoring can impact the quality and/or frequency of sleep.
- Medications: Certain medications have side effects that can cause insomnia, especially those used to tread attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or epilepsy.
- The environment: An uncomfortable bed, snoring partner or uncomfortable temperature are environmental factors that can impact the quality or length of sleep.
- Young children: Babies and young children wake often during the night and parents or older siblings have to tend to them, which in turn impacts their own quality of sleep.
What happens if we don't get enough sleep?
We've all had days where we feel sluggish, tired and irritable after a poor night's sleep, but the effects of long term sleep deprivation can actually be a lot more far reaching than just feeling a bit off for a day or two. If you're not consistently getting 7-9 hours of good quality shut eye per night it poses serious risks to your mental and physical health. Here are some of the long term effects of sleep deprivation:
- Memory issues: When you sleep your brain processes the information you've learned throughout the day and if it's important it will store this information as a long term memory. When you don't get enough sleep, your brain can't complete this processing function and you may find that you aren't retaining information as well as you could be.
- Mood changes: When you're sleep deprived you're more likely to fluctuate emotionally and emotions such as anger or sadness are more easily triggered. If you find yourself experiencing sleep difficulties for long periods of time, it can lead to the development of anxiety and depression.
- Impaired immune system: Your body needs sleep in order to repair cells and build immunity to viruses and harmful bacteria. When you don't get enough sleep, your body's immune system is more easily compromised and you're more likely to get sick.
- Risk of diabetes: a lack of sleep impacts your body's ability to produce and release insulin, the hormone responsible for lowering your blood sugar levels. Those who don't get enough sleep have higher blood sugar levels which in turn puts them at a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
- Weight gain: When you're sleep deprived, the chemicals responsible for telling the brain you're full are thrown off balance and you become more susceptible to overeating. The brain is also more likely to crave sugar as it provides a quick energy boost, making you seek out sugary snacks and foods throughout the day.
- Low sex drive: People who don't get enough sleep have a lower libido. Sleep deprivation also leads to a drop in testosterone, which can also be linked to a lower sex drive in men.
- Risk of heart disease: Sleep deprivation has been linked to higher blood pressure as well as increased inflammation - both of which increases the risk of heart attack.
What to do if you aren't getting enough sleep
Getting your recommended 7-9 hours of sleep a night is often easier said than done, but there are things you can do to help you improve your sleep.
- Start taking naps: If you're only in stage one of sleep deprivation, a nap should help reduce the severity of your symptoms. Try to keep your nap to 30 minutes, and avoid napping within six hours of your regular bed time so your nap doesn't interfere with your sleep at night.
- Practice good sleep hygiene: Staying off your phone before bed, sleeping in a cool room that is completely dark and not drinking coffee before bed are all a part of good sleep hygiene. Sticking to a regular sleep schedule (going to bed and waking up at the same time everyday) will also help you make sure you're getting the right amount of sleep.
- Exercise regularly: People who do moderate to intense physical exercise regularly report faster sleep onset (the time it takes to fall asleep) and are also less likely to be obese which reduces the likelihood of developing sleep apnoea. Exercise also helps alleviate symptoms of anxiety and depression which also contributes to better sleep quality.
- Seek professional help: If you're consistently sleep deprived despite practicing good sleep hygiene it may be best to speak with a healthcare professional like our one of our Canwell Doctors. Your doctor can:
- Refer you to a psychologist if your insomnia stems from or overlaps with symptoms of stress, anxiety or depression.
- Prescribe you medication such as sleeping pills or medicinal cannabis to help you achieve better sleep.
- Test you for sleep apnoea or any other sleep disorders. If diagnosed with a sleep disorder, doctors can then provide you with a care plan that's tailored to your needs (this may or may not include medication).
Sleep is incredibly important to our overall health and wellbeing, and as a result getting a good night's sleep should be a top priority. Sleep disruptions or not getting enough sleep can have lasting physical and psychological implications, but employing good sleep hygiene practices can help you get your recommended shut eye. If you think you may have a sleep disorder, or you're having trouble falling asleep even after practicing good sleep hygiene, it's best to consult your doctor.