*Nothing in this article constitutes medical advice. Seek the guidance of a physician if you have any questions.*
At some point in time, we have all experienced sleep deprivation. Whether it is from a long night out, a new work project, or jetlag, sleep deprivation is never fun. Sleep deprivation is also extremely common. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, roughly one out of three adults in the United States reported being sleep deprived in 2014. Thankfully, there exists an entire branch of medicine dedicated to understanding sleep deprivation and sleep disorders: Somnology. Today, let’s take a deeper dive into the side effects of sleep deprivation.
What is Sleep Deprivation?
Before we can understand what sleep deprivation may result in, we need to understand the disorder itself. Frustratingly, the exact definition of sleep deprivation can be very hard to nail down. According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, sleep deprivation occurs when “an individual fails to get enough sleep.” That definition is rather unsatisfying, right?
The Department of Neurology at Columbia University phrases this somewhat more usefully: “When you get less sleep than that, as many people do, it can eventually lead to a whole host of health problems.” Essentially, sleep deprivation is defined only when it is causing other problems. Unlike some medical conditions, sleep deprivation is only diagnosable when the patient is experiencing issues resultant from their lack of sleep.
That being said, “lack” of sleep will very well mean different things for different people. This is largely due to the fact that sleep habits change as individuals age. For most adults, sleep deprivation will involve less than 7-8 hours of sleep for a chronic period of time.
Side Effects of Sleep Deprivation
Generally, people will experience the side effects of sleep deprivation differently. That being said, many side effects and symptoms may be consistent. According to the Columbia Department of Neurology, many short-term symptoms exist:
- Generalized drowsiness or tiredness
- Inability to concentrate on normal tasks at work or school
- Impaired or “fuzzy” memory
- Decreased physical strength
- Diminished ability to fight off infections
Additionally, over the long-term, sleep deprivation can have more severe effects on your health. Side effects of chronic sleep deprivation may include:
- Increased risk for many different types of diseases. These may include stroke. heart disease, and asthma attack.
- Increased risk for chemical disorders such as depression and anxiety as well as mental illnesses
- Increased risk for life-threatening complications from inattentiveness, such as car accidents
- Untreated sleep disorders like insomnia, sleep apnea, narcolepsy, and sleepwalking
- Severe mood swings
The causes of sleep deprivation are as varied as the people that experience the disorder. That being said, there are generally two categories that the causes of sleep deprivation can fall into: lack of time to sleep and lack of quality sleep.
Lack of Time to Sleep
This is one of the most common reasons that people initially experience sleep deprivation. Any instance in which the ability to get 7-8 sleep was never possible in the first place would fall into this category. This may include:
- Increase in work: Often, when individuals start to get busier with their careers, sleep is the first thing that goes. This may involve a new project or new position.
- New relationships: These are also a major cause of sleep deprivation. Whether that new relationship is with a friend, partner, or child, it tends to take time to adjust to a new schedule.
- Schedule: Some individuals may keep a schedule that makes it difficult to plan for at least 7 hours of continuous sleep. New parents, night shift workers, and on-call workers often find themselves in this scenario.
Lack of Quality Sleep
When an individual does plan enough time to sleep, it doesn’t guarantee that the sleep will be of sufficient quality. Many things can contribute to poor sleep:
- Stress and Anxiety: These can go hand in hand with many other listed causes of sleep deprivation. Whether the root cause of the anxiety is work, money, family, relationships, or anything else, the resultant tossing and turning may be detrimental to sleep quality and thus result in sleep deprivation.
- Sleep disorders: Another reason for a lack of sleep quality could be a sleep-related disorder. Conditions such as sleep apnea, night terrors, insomnia, or excessive snoring can all cause an individual to wake up many times throughout the night. In some instances, individuals don’t even realize that they aren’t getting enough sleep because the instances in which they wake up are so short-lived. Often, a partner or roommate may be one to inform a patient that they have one of these conditions. Your doctor may suggest polysomnography if you’re unable to identify the root cause of sleep deprivation.
- Other illness: In addition to sleep-specific disorders, individuals may notice that a different disease is reducing their quality of sleep and causing sleep deprivation. According to Colombia University, “depression, schizophrenia, chronic pain syndrome, cancer, heart disease, stroke, Parkinson disease, and Alzheimer’s disease” are all known to causes a reduction in sleep quality or duration.
Treating Sleep Deprivation
Thankfully, several options exist to treat sleep deprivation. After an initial diagnosis that includes the root cause, your physician may recommend one of several treatment options.
- Change in habits: This will likely be the first thing that your physician suggests. Whether the change is in your work schedule, work amount, class schedule, or general lifestyle, your physician will almost assuredly discuss this topic.
- Sleep aids: If lifestyle changes don’t seem to be doing enough for sleep deprivation, your physician may suggest over-the-counter (OTC) sleep aids. These are meant for short-term use in order to correct a misaligned sleep schedule. If an OTC is not effective, you may also be prescribed a stronger sleep aid.
- Cognitive-Behavioral-Therapy (CBT): According to the Mayo Clinic, CBT is “common type of talk therapy (psychotherapy)” and it “helps you become aware of inaccurate or negative thinking so you can view challenging situations more clearly and respond to them in a more effective way.” In regards to sleep therapy, a behavioral therapist will work with a patient to understand the underlying causes of anxiety or depression that may be linked to sleep deprivation.
Written by: Patrick O'Hare