Sleep deprivation: how it happens, how to help, and when to seek medical care

We’ve all had those days when sleep just doesn’t come easy. But what happens when it becomes so severe that it goes on for days, starts affecting our everyday lives, and starts taking a toll on our health? Sleep deprivation.

What is Sleep Deprivation?
Sleep deprivation is what happens when you are not getting enough sleep. How much sleep you need will vary from person to person. An adult will need anywhere from 7-8 hours of sleep. About 1 in 5 adults fail to get enough sleep, so it’s important you don’t become that statistic. It drains your mental abilities and puts your physical health at real risk.

Science has linked poor slumber with all kinds of health problems, from weight gain to a weakened immune system. Your body needs sleep, just as it needs air and food, to function at its best. During sleep, your body heals itself and restores its chemical balance; your brain forges new connections and helps memory retention.

Causes of Sleep Deprivation

There are a few common causes to sleep deprivation; voluntary and involuntary sleeplessness. 

Voluntary sleep deprivation:

  1. Some people don’t realize that they need adequate sleep in order for their body to function correctly. This is why some people choose to go to bed late, and then wake up early for school or work. Being unaware of your sleep habits will throw your whole week off if you aren’t getting enough. Making sure to go to sleep at a decent time, limit screen time before bed, and setting up a nighttime routine can help you with sleep deprivation. 
  2. Work: whether it’s working a night shift or frequent traveling, your work schedule is another reason why adults suffer from sleep deprivation. Power naps, sleeping during the day, and sleeping on the plane can all help.
  3. Stress: stress causes insomnia, which makes it hard to fall asleep, and then stay asleep. According to The National Sleep Foundation, stress also can cause “hyperarousal” which can knock the balance between sleep and wakefulness. They also state that no matter the cause of your insomnia, setting up a healthy sleep routine will help. The first step they suggest is setting up a good bedtime and wake up time. Making sure to count how many hours you will be getting to fit in 7-8 hours. Next, they suggest setting up a “winding down” time to allow the brain to tell the alerting mechanisms to slow in order for the sleep systems to take over. This can be anywhere from meditation, a relaxing bath, writing in a journal, listening to relaxing music, or reading a book. This also means stopping electronic use. 

Involuntary sleep deprivation: 

This one usually requires you to see a doctor. 

  1. Being sick: illnesses are common causes for sleep deprivation. Whether it’s a common cold or a serious case of the flu, being sick will definitely alter how much sleep you get. A cold or tonsillitis are known to cause snoring, gagging, and frequent waking. Whereas a stomach ache can definitely keep you up from vomiting. Serious migraine headaches and painful joints can make it difficult to sleep and therefore keep you up. If your Illness is causing you to stay up, make sure you talk to your Medical Provider about getting the right treatment or medication. 
  2. Sleep disorders: sleep apnea, muscle spasms, night terrors, and snoring can all cause sleep deprivation. Making sure to seek medical help to deal with these, can help you get a better nights rest. 

So, what is so important about getting enough sleep?

A lot of adults believe that sleep is essentially a waste of their time. Why sleep when you can work, talk to friends, scroll through Facebook? As we said before, sleep deprivation can cause substantial harm to your body. It is not just mood changes, yawning, fatigue. It is also poor judgment, memory, and decision-making skills. It can cause loss of motivation, loss of relationships, and reduced concentration. Lack of sleep cannot be treated by just a giant cup of coffee. It’s important you’re getting enough sleep every night in order to maintain a normal lifestyle with work, friends, and yourself. Stimulants, like caffeine, aren’t enough to override your body’s profound need for sleep. In fact, these can make sleep deprivation worse by making it harder to fall asleep at night. This, in turn, may lead to a cycle of nighttime insomnia followed by daytime caffeine consumption to make up for the lost hours of shut-eye.

Sleep deprivation also negatively affects your mental abilities and emotional state. You may feel more impatient or prone to mood swings. It can also compromise decision-making processes and creativity.

If sleep deprivation continues long enough, you could start having hallucinations — seeing or hearing things that aren’t there. A lack of sleep can also trigger mania in people who have bipolar disorder. Other psychological risks include:

  • impulsive behavior
  • anxiety
  • depression
  • paranoia
  • suicidal thoughts

You may also end up experiencing microsleep in the day. During these episodes, you’ll fall asleep for a few seconds or minutes without realizing it.

The most basic form of sleep deprivation treatment is getting more sleep.

This is often easier said than done, especially if you’ve been deprived of precious shut-eye for several weeks or longer. After this point, you may need to be seen by your Medical Provider to evaluate whether you have a sleep disorder.  

Sleep disorders can make it difficult to get quality sleep at night. They can also increase your risk for the above effects of sleep deprivation on the body.

The following are the most common types of sleep disorders:

  • Sleep apnea
  • Narcolepsy
  • Restless leg syndrome
  • Seizures
  • Movement disorders

To diagnose these conditions, a sleep study would be done, traditionally conducted at a formal sleep center, but now there are options to measure your sleep quality at home, too.

If you are diagnosed with a Sleep Disorder, you may be given medication or a device to keep your airways open at night (in the case of sleep apnea) to help combat the symptoms so you can get a better night’s sleep on a regular basis.

Ways to prevent sleep deprivation:

  • limit daytime naps (or avoiding them altogether)
  • refrain from caffeine past noon
  • go to bed at the same time each night
  • wake up at the same time every morning
  • stick to your bedtime schedule during weekends and holidays
  • spend an hour before bed doing relaxing activities, such as reading, meditating, or taking a bath
  • avoid heavy meals two hours before bedtime
  • refrain from using electronic devices right before bed
  • exercise regularly, but not in the evening hours close to bedtime

If you’re not sure about your condition, you can always call us and get a full and comprehensive check-up.