Do you struggle to stay awake at work? Do you find your mind wandering while you’re driving or find yourself forgetting things? Do you rely on coffee to get you going in the morning? If so, you are probably one of the many people who suffer from sleep deprivation. You may have found this out from taking the Maas-Robbins Alertness Questionnaire in our first column.
In this busy, 24/7 world that we live in, sleep is often the first thing we sacrifice when we feel there aren’t enough hours in the day. The personal sleep need for most adults is between seven-and-a-half to nine hours per night. While most people claim to get between seven to eight hours of sleep each night, they are actually only sleeping for about six hours. Aside from numbers, anyone who has difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep or has poor sleep quality qualifies as “sleep-deprived.”
The most common symptom of sleep deprivation is fatigue. This seems obvious, but surprisingly most people are so accustomed to feeling tired that they think it’s normal. People who are sleep deprived may also experience mood swings, anxiety, irritability, and difficulty concentrating, remembering, learning or interacting with others.Many people attribute these signs to being a slow learner, an introvert, or someone who just isn’t a vibrant or ambitious person. In reality, your true personality and abilities have been clouded by your fatigue. You’re a different person when you’re tired!
Other signs of chronic sleep deprivation can include frequent infections/illnesses, blurred vision, changes in appetite and depression. While these symptoms may seem unrelated to your sleep habits and relatively insignificant, they can grow into much larger issues (if not treated properly) and negatively impact your health and quality of life.
Not getting enough sleep can have bigger effects than you may realize. Here are some of the ways sleep deprivation negatively impacts your overall health and beauty:
- Microsleeps: Ever find yourself nodding off while behind the wheel? When sleep deprived, you are susceptible to brief episodes of sleep during waking hours known as microsleeps. These episodes last only a few seconds, but the inattention they produce can cause accidents and injury.
- Sleep: During sleep, the body metabolizes free radicals, which accelerate aging and cancerous growths. Not getting adequate sleep can make your skin look older and take longer to heal! A recent study out of Sweden and the Netherlands showed that sleep-deprived individuals were rated as less healthy, more tired, and less attractive by untrained observers than those getting enough sleep.
- Colds and flu: Dr. Jan Born at the University of Luebeck in Germany found that people who sleep less than six hours per night have 50 percent less resistance to viral infection than those getting eight hours of sleep. In addition, Dr. Sheldon Cohen of Carnegie Mellon University found that those sleeping less than seven hours per night are three times more likely to get a cold than longer-sleepers.
- Weight gain: You might think that spending more time in bed makes you lazy, but not spending enough time in bed can also make you fat. To the contrary; lack of sleep lowers leptin levels in the brain and raises ghrelin levels in the stomach. These hormones are responsible for appetite regulation. So when you’re sleep deprived, you’re more likely to overeat—craving carbs, sugars and junk food. Researchers have found people who sleep 5 hours per night have a 50 percent higher chance of being obese, while those who sleep 6 hours have a 23 percent greater risk.Lesssleep is associated with an almost two-fold increase in obesity—a trend that is detectable in children as young as five. The research also linked short sleep with a higher body-mass index (BMI) and waist circumference over time.
- Diabetes: A study at the University of Chicago involving healthy young men with no risk factor for diabetes found that after just one week of inadequate sleep, they were in a pre-diabetic state. Researchers attributed the result to overactive central nervous systems (caused by not sleeping), which affected the ability of the pancreas to produce enough insulin to adequately regulate glucose levels. The current epidemic in diabetes may be connected to the epidemic in sleep deprivation. We now have an epidemic of early onset childhood diabetes, and it appears to be linked to obesity and lack of sleep.
- Heart disease: Not sleeping often causes the body to produce more stress hormones. Such an imbalance can lead to arteriosclerosis, which can cause heart attacks and stroke, in addition to hypertension, muscle loss, increased fat storage, loss of bone mass, and lower production of growth hormone and testosterone.In addition, short-sleepers miss out on REM sleep (predominant between the seventh and eight hours of the night), during which time the heart pumps more blood to the muscles. This helps it relax as blood pressure falls. So by cutting back on sleep, we’re preventing this innate regulating system from doing its job.Additionally, sleep apnea, if undiagnosed and/or untreated, significantly raises the risk of cardiovascular disease because the heart must work harder to oxygenate the blood. According to Diane Lauderdale at the University of Chicago, one extra hour of sleep per night decreases the risk of artery calcification by 33 percent. Plus, it’s accompanied by a 17mm drop in systolic blood pressure.
- Cancer: Women who exercise regularly and were generally healthy had a 47 percent higher risk of cancer if they were sleeping fewer than seven hours. Good sleep habits can be a valuable weapon in fighting cancers, citing melatonin (released during sleep) and cortisol production (involved in regulating immune system activity) as vital players in patient recovery. Night-shift workers (both male and female) have a 35 percent higher risk of colorectal cancer. Why? According to the International Agency for Research on Cancer, shift-work is not a “possible” but a “probable” carcinogen, due to too much light exposure and lack of melatonin secretion in your brain because you are not sleeping.
- Behavioral effects: Sleep deprivation makes you prone to mood shifts (depression, irritability), stress, anxiety, loss of coping skills, decreased socialization, poor mental functioning, reduced ability to communicate and difficulty concentrating.
Why can’t I sleep?
There are many factors that contribute to sleep loss. The biggest problem is that our society has trained us to treat sleep as a luxury rather than a necessity. We cut sleep from our schedules to try to make room for other things. Ironically, we would be more efficient and productive if we slept more.
Temporary sleep loss is usually triggered by passing stressors such as body aches, indigestion, jetlag or short illnesses. These stressors are inconvenient and annoying, but relatively easy to treat. Anxiety is the most common cause of short term sleep loss. Nervousness over money, relationships, jobs or other concerns can cause you to toss and turn at night.
Long term sleep loss is most often caused by medical conditions such as arthritis, diabetes, epilepsy, ulcers and heart disease, among others. Consistent drug (including caffeine) or alcohol use can also cause sleep problems. Occasionally environmental factors, such as living in a noisy area or consistently working night-shifts, are the culprit. In addition, there are a number of sleep-specific conditions such as sleep apnea, narcolepsy and restless leg syndrome (among others) that can cause long term sleep loss.
How to “cure” sleep deprivationSleep better and sleep more! Changing your schedule to make time for more sleep will take several weeks, but eventually you should be able to wake up fully rested, without an alarm clock! Most people only need to add an extra hour of sleep per night to feel fully alert the next day. You should feel a notable difference in your health after just a few nights of meeting your personal sleep quotient.
You will wake up feeling like a new person!