How serious is being sleep deprived? You have probably heard that the consequences of sleep deprivation can be so serious as to be considered life threatening. Like most people, you may think that only applies to severe cases of insomnia, but the consequences of sleep deprivation begin with interrupted sleep patterns and can cause significant harm to your mental, emotional and physical health. Just sleeping in on weekends won’t undo the damage either, there is much to be done to correct this situation before you risk becoming seriously ill – or creating a dangerous situation for yourself or others.
What counts as sleep deprivation?
Sleep deprivation doesn’t always come about just because you haven’t gotten a good night’s rest for a day or three, it is created when there is an interruption of consistent sleep patterns for longer than 4 days. That is when the cycle of sleep deprivation begins. Sleep deprivation is much more than just a short week of insomnia, if you are in a pattern of interrupted sleep – whether on a nightly, weekly or monthly basis; you can become sleep deprived. To be sleep deprived doesn’t mean you haven’t had 8 hours of sleep, it means that there is not consistency to your sleep patterns. Just going to bed and rising at the same time doesn’t create the consistency either – it is the consistency of the sleep stages that will determine if you are deprived.
Can’t you just sleep in and catch up?
The human mind and body are very resilient and adaptable, however it is harder to undue a state of sleep deprivation than you think. Just catching up on sleeping, or sleeping for hours longer than you normally would won’t help – the brain needs a set pattern of movement through the different brain stages in order to stay functional. Most people have heard of the REM stages (the dream stage) but good sleep isn’t just about hitting REM; you need to progress in sequence through the Alpha, Theta, and Delta stages of sleep too. This is why just sleeping in on a Saturday morning won’t undo the harm of missing out on sleep or having erratic sleep patterns during the work week.
What are the short term consequences of sleep deprivation?
The short term consequences of sleep deprivation are surprisingly serious. With just one night of interrupted sleep there is a marked reduction in cognitive functioning and reaction time. This is one of the reasons why certain professions – such as any that involve driving or operating machinery require that the operators have a certain amount of hours off between shifts. The worst thing about the short term consequences is it is hard for the person who is experiencing a reduction in cognition or reaction time to recognize that they are going through this. Just having coffee or some form of “pick-me-up” can temporarily restore some of your alertness, but it cannot fully restore it.
In fact, caffeine and energy boosting supplements can make the problem worse because they can continue the sleep interruption pattern and turn short term sleep deprivation into a long term problem. One of the main issues about any type of sleep deprivation is that the human body and mind is adaptable and it will seek to adapt to any problem – such as a change in sleep routines. This means the body will try to hold on to any type of predictable sleep pattern – even if it is the wrong one that harms the body – when you try to change to get more sleep. People who suffer from insomnia have a hard time overcoming the issue because they are trying to change the pattern of sleep that the body now adapts to accept as normal.
What are the long term consequences of sleep deprivation?
Long term consequences of sleep deprivation are so serious that they are considered life threatening. Lack of sleep begins to increase stress and anxiety levels while reducing cognitive abilities and reaction times. All of this comes with a physical price because it changes the body’s ability to cope with physical stress and to use stress reducing hormones effectively. Long term consequences of sleep deprivation have been associated with an increased risk of –
- Heart attack
- Heart disease
- Blood sugar disorders
- Mental illness
- Mood disorders
The long term effects can also harm relationships both personal and professional.
Are over the counter sleep aids worth it?
The first thing most people reach for when they can’t sleep is an over-the-counter sleep aid. These days most of them contain a anti-histamine. While these can help you to fall asleep they may not help you to stay asleep and can do little to assist your brain in getting back into healthy sleep stage movement. There are some herbal remedies such as Valerian and Melatonin that are showing more clinical evidence of being effective in helping you overcome sleep deprivation.
What about prescription sleep medication?
Prescription sleep medications should always be approached with caution. Many of them are habit forming, and many also have side effects that may not be worth it. Never try anyone’s sleep medication, and don’t believe all the hype you may read in the advertisements for them. Talk to your doctor and try other solutions first before using a medication. Some people do benefit from a prescription medication and if needed, it should be taken as directed.
What are my other options if I am sleep deprived?
The typical approach for treating sleep deprivation is to look at your diet first, and then your sleep hygiene habits. A lack in calcium and vitamins D and B12 can contribute to poor sleep. Poor sleep hygiene – the habits you have that surround going to sleep and the environment you sleep in – also have a significant effect on causing sleep deprivation. Your best bet is to look at all of the things that surround your sleep, including your stress levels, and seek to change those first to see if your pattern of sleep responds while also using a complimentary medication or supplement to jump start healthy sleep.