Causes and Symptoms of Sleep Deprivation

Sleep is as essential to well-being as food, water and shelter, yet research shows that up to 60-percent of us aren’t getting enough of it, and the problem is growing. Both individuals and communities are suffering from the physical and mental health effects of sleep deprivation, and experts are warning — it’s an epidemic.

What is sleep deprivation?

Everyone struggles with insomnia occasionally, but when it happens consistently, it’s called “sleep deprivation.” How much sleep loss is considered deprivation?

Doctors say that regularly getting less than 7 hours per night can lead to trouble. But individuals are different, and not all age groups are similarly affected — older adults are less vulnerable than children. There’s no firm number, but in general, if you’re not getting enough sleep to feel refreshed in the morning or you’re suffering from daytime sleepiness, you may be sleep deprived.

Causes of Sleep Deprivation

The causes of sleep deprivation vary. The most common include:

Work

Evening work and jet lag caused by long-distance travel shift the balance of the body’s circadian rhythm, causing people to fall asleep later than usual. When there’s no opportunity to sleep in the following morning, chronic sleep deprivation occurs. It’s the downside to having 24/7 services.

Family

Surveys suggest new parents lose as much as six months of cumulative sleep in the first two years of a child’s life. When coupled daytime with work and school commitments, the result can be chronic sleep deficiency.

Stress

Stress causes hyperarousal — a physical and mental state of alert that’s similar to the fight or flight response. Worry about school, work or financial issues boosts the level of hormones responsible for wakefulness and makes it difficult to sleep.

Medication and Substance Use

Insomnia is a common side effect of many medications used to treat physical and mental illness. Examples include beta-blockers for hypertension, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors for depression and bipolar disorder and over-the-counter remedies for colds and flu.

Everyday substances can also act as stimulants, promoting wakefulness and causing a jittery feeling. Alcohol, caffeine and nicotine top the list.

Sleep Disorders

Sleep disorders are conditions that make it difficult to fall or stay asleep — about 20-percent of adults are affected. Primary insomnia is the most common cause of cumulative sleep deprivation, but sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome and parasomnias are also prevalent.

Lifestyle

Sleep isn’t always a top priority for people when they’re enjoying a party, watching TV or chatting with friends online. Opting for fun over sleep is a personal choice that many young people are tempted to make, but it’s one that can lead to a sleep debt that’s tough to repay.

sleep deprived woman sleeping at her desk

Symptoms of Sleep Deprivation

Regardless of the cause of sleep deprivation, its effects can be shocking. Even short-term sleep loss can cause symptoms that help explain the high incidence of automobile and workplace accidents such as:

  • Fatigue

  • Poor memory

  • Irritability

  • Impaired judgment

  • Slow hand-eye coordination

  • Tremor

  • Hallucinations and more

If sleeplessness persists over time, symptoms can worsen until they affect your general health. Known as cumulative sleep deprivation, it’s a serious risk factor for conditions including:

  • Headaches

  • Chronic pain

  • Fibromylagia

  • High blood pressure

  • Diabetes

  • Hormone imbalances

  • Weight gain

  • Heart Disease

  • Cancer and more

The Bright Side of Cumulative Sleep Deprivation

Everyone suffers from the consequences of sleep loss, but for persons with some forms of depression, chronic sleep deprivation can be therapeutic. Researchers believe that when neurotransmitters in the brain are imbalanced — a common cause of depression — the loss of REM sleep can help restore them to more normal levels.

Chronic sleep deprivation therapy doesn’t work for everyone, and its benefits must be balanced against the risks to overall health — but its intermittent use been proven to be effective.

Final Thoughts

The effects of sleep are profound — it fights inflammation, rejuvenates the immune system and refreshes a tired mind. In a world of distraction and never-ending activity, sleep can be the best medicine.