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How Sleep Deprivation Affects Your Mind and Body

ChiliSleep Staff

08.06.22

Sleep deprivation

We’ve all said things like this to ourselves as we cobble away at our valuable sleep time:

“I will catch up on sleep this weekend after finishing this project for work.”

“I’ve done fine on 4 hours a night of sleep before… I can do it again.”

“Where-is-any-kind-of-caffeine?…I need it now!”

Eventually, however, we sorely regret it as we doze during the school concert or become irritable, forgetful, or moody. Nature intended for us to get a good night’s sleep for many reasons (7-9 hours of sleep per night for adults) [1].

If we don’t get enough sleep, we can quickly become sleep-deprived. Lack of sleep, or sleep deprivation, can have real consequences for your mind and body.
The good news is that there are many ways to keep sleep deprivation from disrupting our lives.

What is Sleep Deprivation?

Sleep deprivation is defined as a state of not obtaining adequate total sleep, resulting in detrimental effects on the brain, body, mood, and cognition. Therefore, sleep deprivation can negatively affect all aspects of health.

Health professionals often categorize sleep deprivation as either acute (a few days or less) or chronic (over an extended period of time). Chronic sleep insufficiency or deficiency describes a type of sleep deprivation that occurs as a result of sleep fragmentation or other disruptions [2-4].

Additional Resource: How to Fall Back Asleep After Waking at Night

How Sleep Deprivation Affects Health

Decades of scientific research confirm that sleep is absolutely necessary for healthy functioning and even survival [5].

Blood Sugar Regulation

Even short-term sleep deprivation symptoms may interfere with the body’s complex metabolic processes. One of these is the processing of glucose. When glucose levels are out of balance, it increases the chances of developing type 2 diabetes. For individuals with type 1 or type 2 diabetes, symptoms are exacerbated. [2-4]

Working Memory, Cognition, and Attention

Some of the most extensively-researched effects of sleep deprivation include those on working memory and attention. Healthy sleep is critical to waking cognition and memory consolidation. It also assists in thinking clearly, being alert and vigilant, and practicing sustained attention. All of these benefits decline quickly in the presence of sleep deprivation [2-4].

Attention lapses in even ordinary routine activities can waste time and also be quite frustrating. Unfortunately, memory and attention problems can have consequences, such as impaired driving or unsafe operation of industrial equipment. In a landmark study, driving after not sleeping for 18 hours was comparable to having a blood-alcohol level of .05 [driving while impaired] [6].

Tara Youngblood: How a Sleep Recipe Changed My Life

Tara Youngblood, CEO and co-founder of Sleepme Inc., teaches us to optimize our waking hours by creating a sleep recipe we need to recover and restore overnight.

Weight Regulation

Sleep deprivation can disrupt the hormones that regulate our appetites (this includes glucose imbalances, as we learned above). Multiple extensive clinical studies indicate that the United States' obesity problems correspond to the average number of hours Americans sleep at night [2-4]. Reduced sleep also increases the production of the ghrelin hormone, which increases appetite.

Psychological Wellbeing

Sleep deprivation can progressively take a toll on our abilities in emotional regulation. We have all experienced increased irritability and stress when our sleep quality and levels are inadequate.

Thus, we become much more sensitive emotionally to generally minor stressors. One sleep scientist refers to this as the “Who was at my desk or who touched my coffee cup’ phenomenon.” (p. 759)[7]

The Immune System

Sleep is critical in regulating the body’s immune system. Even short periods of adequate sleep make us more vulnerable to illness. One of the effects of not getting enough sleep is inflammation. Chronic inflammation exposes us to the increased potential for many health conditions, including ulcers and heart disease.

What Causes Sleep Deprivation?

Many factors contribute to our sleep routines, quality and habits. As a result, they can cause or contribute to chronic and acute sleep deprivation [2-4, 7]. Some of the following include:

  • Excessive worrying
  • Parenting demands (and are we surprised by this?)
  • Sleeping too hot
  • Work obligations
  • Lifestyle choices
  • Poor sleep hygiene
  • Shift work

Medical conditions can also play a significant role such as:

  • Restless Leg Syndrome
  • Menopause
  • Fibromyalgia

Some medications for those conditions often have side effects that could include wakefulness.

Sleep Deprivation Prevention

Sleep scientists emphasize that sleep is of a higher quality when it's consolidated and not fragmented. It allows the body and brain to cycle through the appropriate sequences of REM (Rapid Eye Movement) and non-REM sleep.

Thus, the consolidated sleep effectively coincides with the body’s circadian rhythm (or natural sleep/wake cycle). The main factor in preventing sleep deprivation is maximizing all opportunities for deep, uninterrupted sleep.

Those individuals with medical conditions or who have jobs that include a lot of traveling or shift work admittedly have the most significant challenges in keeping sleep deprivation at bay. However, there are numerous ways to tackle the problem even with these difficulties [8].

Create a great sleep environment

Personalized Sleep Hygiene

We recommend that you develop a personalized sleep hygiene strategy. Some examples include the following:

  • Freeing yourself from electronic devices 30-60 minutes before bedtime.
  • Expand your knowledge of foods and drinks that can help you sleep.
  • Practice meditation and breathing routines, which can clear the mind and slow metabolism.
  • Keep your bedroom on the cool side (compared to your normal body temperature). The optimum room temperature is between 65 and 72 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Keep your mattress cool throughout the night with the help of a cooling mattress pad, such as the OOLER.

You should consult with a healthcare provider if you consistently deal with sleep deprivation to prevent/mitigate its associated adverse health effects!

Monitor Your Sleep

With sleep deprivation, it’s important to know that it can often sneak up on us. Sometimes we don’t realize it until it hits us hard, or we are unaware of the cumulative sleep deficits that can interfere with our overall health [3-4].

Additional Resource: Learn about the benefits of sleep trackers and how they can help you monitor the quality of your sleep.

Conclusion and Key Takeaways

Admittedly, it can be overwhelming to learn how sleep deprivation can affect your mind and body. However, the excellent news is that sleep deprivation can be prevented or managed in most cases. We recommend that you periodically remind yourself of the benefits of healthy sleep.

Appropriate regulation of hormones, keeping sleep-wake cycles and appetite in check.

  • Maintaining your best attention and cognition
  • A well-functioning immune system
  • Positive psychological well-being

ChiliSleep's mission is to make sleep easy, achievable and a positive part of your health. We hope these tips and tricks help improve your sleep health. Your healthcare provider is always your best source of information for sleep-related concerns.

Citations/References

[1] Hirshkowitz, M., Whiton, K., Albert, S. M., Alessi, C., Bruni, O., DonCarlos, L., Hazen, N., Herman, J., Katz, E. S., Kheirandish-Gozal, L., Neubauer, D. N., O'Donnell, A. E., Ohayon, M., Peever, J., Rawding, R., Sachdeva, R. C., Setters, B., Vitiello, M. V., Ware, J. C., & Adams Hillard, P. J. (2015). National Sleep Foundation's sleep time duration recommendations: methodology and results summary. Sleep health, 1(1), 40–43. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.sleh.2014.12.010

[2] (Author). (2022, March 24 [last updated]). What are sleep deprivation and deficiency? National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/sleep-deprivation

[3] American Sleep Association. (n.d.) Sleep deprivation: Symptoms, causes, treatments. American Sleep Association. https://www.sleepassociation.org/sleep-disorders/sleep-deprivation/

[4] Suni, E. (2022, March 18). Sleep Deprivation. The Sleep Foundation. https://www.sleepfoundation.org/sleep-deprivation

[5] Worley, S.L. (2018) The extraordinary importance of sleep: The detrimental effects of inadequate sleep on health and public safety drive an explosion of sleep research. Pharmacy & Therapeutics. 43(12): 758–763. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6281147/

[6] Williamson, A.M. & Feyer, A.M. (2000). Moderate sleep deprivation produces impairments in cognitive and motor performance equivalent to legally prescribed levels of alcohol intoxication. Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 57(10):649-55.

[7] Gotter,A. (2018, January 11 [last updated). Shift work sleep disorder. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/shift-work-sleep-disorder

[8] (Author) (2011, September). In brief: Your guide to healthy sleep. National Heart, Lung, Blood Institute. https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/files/docs/public/sleep/healthysleepfs.pdf

About ChiliSleep Staff

ChiliSleep’s award-winning content team -- journalists, writers, and researchers -- report on a mix of innovative scientific studies, emerging sleep tech trends, and personal wellness topics.
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