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Sleep Deprivation – How Losing Sleep Can Ruin Your Health


Chronic sleep deprivation is not a disease, but a cause. People get deprived of sleep often due to personal lifestyle choices, night shift jobs, and other habits.  Sleep deficiency often occurs when humans intentionally shorten night rest, thus compromising on its duration.

Excessive daytime sleepiness and headaches are common symptoms. Chronic deprivation leads to accumulation of sleep debt.

What The Data Says

Recent data indicates that almost everyone is at risk of insufficient sleep. At least one-third of adults in the US are sleeping less than 7 hours a night. Experts think that sleep deprivation is slowly emerging as a significant cause for diseases. If a person does not sleep enough it not only drains energy, it influences every health parameter including the brain.

One of the reasons why people do not realize the health risks associated with sleep deprivation is that it rarely causes acute illnesses. Although many do not recognize that sleep loss is the common reason for motor accidents and injuries at work. In a large number of cases it causes chronic illnesses.

Among non-lifestyle causes, sleep apnea is the leading cause of the disturbed sleep-wake cycle. Sleep apnea disturbs circadian rhythm, it also alters the sleep cycle, reducing REM sleep. Sleep apnea disturbs breathing at night. It reduces oxygen supply to the brain when resting.

Losing sleep has many adverse effects on wellbeing

  • Obesity– research shows that sleep deprived people are more prone to obesity or unwanted weight gain. Insufficient sleep is often associated with an abnormal appetite. Further, it causes changes in metabolism that increase the risk of gaining body weight. Researchers think that sleep deprivation causes both hormonal changes and changes in the brain.
  • Diabetes– studies have shown that those diagnosed with diabetes are habitually sleepless when compared to healthy people. There are various mechanisms involved in the development of diabetes like dietary changes, changes in the brain, reduced insulin sensitivity, and much more.
  • Cardiovascular disease- those who sleep less are more prone to stress and metabolic disorder. They are also at higher risk of heart attack, stroke, and heart disease.
  • High blood pressure- studies show that those who sleep less are also at more risk of high blood pressure. It could be due to higher stress levels, water retention, or hardening of blood vessels. High blood pressure further increases the risk of cardiovascular diseases.
  • Mood disorders- It is perhaps the most evident result of lack of sleep. Everyone knows that a person becomes irritable and moody if he or she does not sleep enough. Prolonged sleep deprivation may cause more severe problems like anxiety and depression. Mood-related effects of sleep deprivation are visible even if a person is deprived of sleep for just one night. However, chronic deprivation is something different. It may cause more severe mental issues.
  • Memory issues– it is the reason why people are told to have adequate rest before exams or competition. Sleep can affect both short-term memory and long-term memory. It can even increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Weakened immunity- means a higher risk of seasonal ailments.
Sleep Deprivation Figure 1
Figure 1 Health consequences of sleep deprivation (Source: 1. Medic G, Wille M, Hemels ME. Short- and long-term health consequences of sleep disruption. Nat Sci Sleep. 2017;9:151-161. doi:10.2147/NSS.S134864)

Ways to Remedy Sleep Deprivation

As already mentioned, the primary cause of sleep deprivation is lifestyle or habits. It means that the solution is not in medications. Changing habits can help better. It pays to improve sleep hygiene. Sleep hygiene refers to improving the conditions for sleeping. Here are a few ways to get rid of daytime sleepiness, fall asleep faster, and improve your cognitive performance.

  • Start by identifying the causes of sleep deprivation. Is it a job? Is it television? Is it a habit of staying out late with friends?
  • Make a sleep time-table and stick to it. Go to bed at a fixed time every day. Do not compromise on it unless it is absolutely necessary. Remember: no excuses.
  • Avoid having coffee, alcohol, brain altering substances, or heavy meals in the evening.
  • Start doing exercise. It helps to improve sleep intensity. It is good for NREM sleep and helps prevent insomnia.
  • Make changes to the bedroom like removing the television. Make your bedroom dark, comfortable, and noise free.
  • Once a day, have a power nap to reduce total sleep deprivation.

If you have a problem going to bed or initiating sleep or maintaining sleep, then consult a specialist. It is also recommended to keep a sleep diary with information about sleep duration, quality, exercise, daytime feeling, etc. A sleep diary can help a specialist to provide the right solution.

Additional resources

  1. Medic G, Wille M, Hemels ME. Short- and long-term health consequences of sleep disruption. Nat Sci Sleep. 2017;9:151-161. doi:10.2147/NSS.S134864
  2. Taheri S, Lin L, Austin D, Young T, Mignot E. Short sleep duration is associated with reduced leptin, elevated ghrelin, and increased body mass index. PLoS Med. 2004;1(3):e62. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.0010062
  3. CDC. Getting Enough Sleep? Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. http://www.cdc.gov/features/getting-enough-sleep/index.html. Published February 23, 2016. Accessed November 7, 2018.

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