The personal sleep need for most adults is between 7.5 – 9 hours per night. Anyone who has difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep and/or poor sleep quality qualifies as sleep-deprived. Research shows that though most people claim to sleep for up to 7 – 8 hours daily, they sleep well only for about six hours max every day.
Signs of danger
The most common symptom of sleep deprivation is fatigue. But as obvious as it seems, many people become so accustomed to feeling chronically tired that they accept it as normal. This attitude is also often applied to other symptoms such as mood swings, irritability, anxiety, and difficulty concentrating, remembering, learning and interacting socially.
Many people just write off these signs to their personality traits of being a loner, a slow-learner, or just not a vibrant person. They’d be surprised to know that their fatigue has created this shell around their true personality and abilities.
Signs of chronic sleep deprivation can also include frequent infections/illnesses, blurred vision, changes in appetite, and depression. While these symptoms may be relatively minor and seem unrelated at first, they can be the precursors of life-shortening afflictions. Without proper treatment, they can negatively impact your health and quality of life.
The first cut
When it seems there aren’t enough hours in the day, sleep is the first thing we cut—though ironically if we slept more, we’d be more efficient and productive. The advent of the Internet, buzzing PDAs and 24/7 entertainment has compounded matters. Abusing sleep with blissful machismo is now deeply engrained in our global society.
Many specific factors contribute to sleep deprivation. Temporary sleep loss, for instance, is often triggered by passing stressors, such as a headache, toothache, indigestion, back problems, cold, flu or jetlag. While these causes are frustrating, they’re relatively easy to treat.
Anxiety is the most common cause of short-term sleep loss, and it can last for weeks. Nervousness about money, marriage or relationships, losing or finding a job, your weight or other health concerns and even boredom, can make you toss and turn in bed.
Long-term sleep loss is occasionally caused by environmental factors—your job [if you’re a night-shift worker], where you live [if it’s in a noisy area]—but more so, it stems from medical conditions such as arthritis, diabetes, epilepsy, ulcers and heart disease. It could also result from consistent intake of drugs, caffeine or alcohol. Sleep-specific medical conditions like sleep apnoea, narcolepsy, and restless leg syndrome can disrupt rest as well.
The adverse effects
Sleep deprivation affects you in many ways. Here are some of them:
- Daytime drowsiness deteriorates. Performance plummets and cognition wanes when you are deprived of sleep.
- You become susceptible to micro sleeps—brief episodes of sleep that you’re unaware of and that occur during waking hours. Lasting only a few seconds, micro sleeps can produce inattention, resulting in accidents and injury.
- Your frequency of getting colds and flu increases. Dr Jan Born at the University of Luebeck in Germany found that people who sleep less than six hours per night have 50 per cent 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 catch a cold than longer-sleepers.
- Weight gain. You might think that spending more time in bed makes you lazy, but did you know that not spending enough time in bed can make you fat? 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.
- 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.
- Heart disease. Lack of sleep causes the body to produce more stress hormones. Such an imbalance can lead to arteriosclerosis, which causes heart attacks and stroke in addition to hypertension, increased fat storage, and lower production of growth hormones and testosterone.
- Cancer. Researchers at Stanford University found that 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.
- Behavioural changes. Lack of sleep causes mood shifts [depression and irritability], sub-par mental functioning/perception, concentration problems, difficulties in thinking logically and critically, failing to analyse and assimilate information. reduced ability to communicate, lower creativity, and impaired motor skills and coordination.
How to get over it
Learn to sleep better and sleep more. Most people need to rest just one extra hour per night to stay completely alert all day. It’ll take a few weeks to effectively change your schedule to accommodate this, but eventually you should be waking up naturally without an alarm clock. And after just a few nights of meeting your personal sleep quotient by improving your sleep strategies, you will feel a notable difference in your health.
The Sleep Meter: Think You’re Alert?
Most people don’t value sleep and have no idea how tired they really are. There’re various elaborate and expensive laboratory tests that objectively measure sleepiness, but we can make a pretty thorough assessment based on how you respond to The Maas Robbins Alertness Questionnaire [MRAQ]. The 20 statements help differentiate between well-rested and sleep-deprived individuals.
Please indicate true or false for the following statements:
- I often need an alarm clock in order to wake up at the appropriate time.
- It’s often a struggle for me to get out of bed in the morning.
- Weekday mornings I often hit the snooze bar several times.
- I often feel tired and stressed out during the week.
- I often feel moody and irritable, little things upset me.
- I often have trouble concentrating and remembering.
- I often feel slow with critical thinking, problem solving and being creative.
- I need caffeine to get going in the morning or make it through the afternoon.
- I often wake up craving junk food, sugars, and carbohydrates.
- I often fall asleep watching TV.
- I often fall asleep in boring meetings or lectures or in warm rooms.
- I often fall asleep after heavy meals or after a low dose of alcohol.
- I often fall asleep while relaxing after dinner.
- I often fall asleep within five minutes of getting into bed.
- I often feel drowsy while driving.
- I often sleep extra hours on the weekends.
- I often need a nap to get through the day.
- I have dark circles around my eyes.
- I fall asleep easily when watching a movie
- I rely on energy drinks or over-the-counter medications to keep me awake.
If you answered “true” to four or more of these statements, consider yourself seriously sleep-deprived.
By James B. Maas, Ph.D. and Rebecca S. Robbins, Cornell University C 2010. All rights reserved.