The Effects of Lack of Sleep: Sleep Deprivation Symptoms & Treatment
One of the few undeniable realities of life is sleep. Everyone needs it. But how many are actually getting enough sleep? And how much is really enough? Let’s dig a bit deeper.
Even the best sleepers have restless nights from time to time. Some nights will be better than others, no matter who you are! It is inherent in human biology–we are not machines. We react emotionally to our surroundings, which impacts the quality of sleep.
Lack of sleep only becomes a problem when you struggle with this issue regularly. These struggles typically happen when you over prioritize your sleep and worry about its (alleged) adverse effects. These thoughts can induce a state of hyperarousal, leading to a vicious sleepless cycle.
How Much Sleep Do You Really Need?
Sleep is necessary. The amount of sleep required, though, varies from person to person. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to sleep. It is up to your body to determine how much sleep it needs.
Sleep requirements may vary based on the situation and even the day of the week. You may need seven hours of sleep one night and only six the next. Having said that, the National Sleep Foundation publishes recommendations on how much sleep, on average, you should be getting depending on your age.
These recommendations for sleep are:
- Older adults, 65+ years: 7 to 8 hours.
- Adults, 26 to 64 years: 7 to 9 hours.
- Young adults, 18 to 25 years: 7 to 9 hours.
- Teenagers, 14 to 17 years: 8 to 10 hours.
- School-age children, 6 to 13 years: 9 to 11 hours.
- Preschool children, 3 to 5 years: 10 to 13 hours.
- Toddlers, 1 to 2 years: 11 to 14 hours.
- Infants, 4 to 11 months: 12 to 15 hours.
- Newborns, 0 to 3 months: 14 to 17 hours.
Keep in mind, though, that these are general recommendations. Paying attention to how you feel during the day is still the best approach to assess how much sleep you need.
Acute Effects of Sleep Deprivation
It is a widely held belief that a lack of sleep negatively impacts performance. But the negative effects of a single terrible night or a few bad nights are often exaggerated. In fact, the anxiety about not doing well enough may be more harmful to you than the sleeplessness itself.
Research shows moderate sleep deprivation impairs your ability to complete monotonous and repetitive tasks first. It has little effect on challenging tasks that demand higher-order thinking. Because these tasks are complex, your hyper-arousal system kicks in to keep you focused on the job.
While severe sleep deprivation may cause symptoms such as excessive daytime sleepiness, these effects are short-lived.
Long-Term Effects of Lack of Sleep on the Body
We hear all the time that lack of sleep causes a variety of health problems. Yes, population studies reveal that a lack of sleep causes a variety of health problems. These include:
1. Cardiovascular Disease
A 2016 meta-analysis links chronic sleep deprivation to heart problems such as high blood pressure and elevated cholesterol. It is also associated with an increased incidence of heart attack and stroke.
An epidemiological study shows sleep deprived individuals are up to five times more likely to develop diabetes.
A review of literature links a lack of sleep to obesity in both humans and animals.
Studies propose a physiological link between sleep and a weak immune system.
5. Hormonal Abnormalities
Numerous studies link sleep deprivation to hormonal changes, including increased cortisol and ghrelin and decreased leptin levels.
6. Mental Health Disorders
Many studies propose that insomnia is a risk factor for psychiatric conditions and mental health disorders such as Alzheimer's and depression.
But does it translate? How worried should we really be?
Causation is not implied by correlation. Simply stated: just because two things are related does not mean we understand why. The fact that short sleep duration is associated with health problems does not mean that sleep deprivation is the cause of these problems.
When it's sunny outdoors, more people go outside, and statistically, there are more homicides. Does this mean summertime causes more homicides? No! Similarly, we have just as much evidence that a lack of sleep promotes ill-health as the sun kills people.
How To Get More Sleep
If you're not sleeping well, you can try these simple habit changes to get back on track. The most important one is to establish a fixed wake-up time. Secondly, try not to worry too much about sleep and know that your body knows how to handle sleep on its own. Sometimes the best thing you can do is not to stand in the way by trying to optimize sleep too much. Bodies are built to handle short periods of stress; bodies know how to reestablish healthy sleep patterns after a few days of dysregulation.
However, If your insomnia persists despite these modifications, your doctor may recommend cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT-I). CBT-I is based on the notion that how we think, behave, and feel are all interconnected and influence one another. It can assist you in managing thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that disrupt sleep. It can help your body remember how to return to its routines with healthy sleep.
Dr. Colleen Ehrnstrom is a licensed clinical psychologist with a specialty practice in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). Areas of expertise include insomnia and other sleep disorders, anxiety, and depression.
Dr Ehrnstrom is the co-author of the book End the Insomnia Struggle: A Step by Step Guide to Help you Get to Sleep and Stay Asleep which offers a comprehensive, personalized sleep program that integrates the physiology of sleep, cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT).