If you have sleep deprivation, or know someone who suffers from it, it can be hard to understand how to break the cycle and get back into normal sleep patterns. Sleep deprivation can be life threatening. Not only does it impair your normal level of awareness, but it is also associated with an increase of serious health conditions. To be able to overcome sleep deprivation, you first have to understand its causes. Not all sleep deprivation can be undone with medication, or just by sleeping in for a few days.
Sleep deprivation versus lack of sleep
While all interruptions to normal sleep habits will cause you to be sleep deprived, sleep deprivation refers to the state where your sleep has been interrupted for more than 7 consecutive days. The difference is that after 7 days, when your sleep is out of its normal pattern, the brain adapts and takes on the new pattern as normal. This means that just taking an over the counter medication or sleeping in for a few mornings won’t be enough to get you back on track. Sleep deprivation is serious and can lead to some life threatening complications.
How serious is it?
Sleep is vital to how we function mentally, physically and emotionally. When your sleep pattern is interrupted through not being able to fall asleep, not being able to stay asleep or not getting long enough sleep in the right stage of brain activity (alpha, delta, theta and so on) your ability to function is compromised, and your immune system is impaired. The immediate danger of sleep deprivation is that your physical reaction time slows and your cognitive abilities decline. This can make you miss certain cues, become overly stressed or easily confused and have a delayed reaction time to things around you. Many car accidents are caused by sleep deprivation. The driver doesn’t fall asleep behind the wheel, but they are unable to react with normal speed when something happens. Sleep deprivation has been linked to an increased risk for depression, anxiety, high blood pressure, heart attack and stroke among other serious conditions.
The role of diet in sleep deprivation
Diet plays a huge role in causing sleep deprivation. The obvious suspects are caffeine and energy boosting foods and drink – but too much alcohol, sugar and fat can also keep you awake. Alcohol can make you feel tired and help you fall asleep fast, but as it leaves your system it causes a chemical imbalance that prevents healthy sleep. New studies have confirmed that deficiencies in calcium, vitamins D and the B vitamins can also contribute to disrupted sleep patterns. Not eating enough, or eating too much near bedtime can also set up metabolic practices that will interfere with sleep as well.
Understanding sleep hygiene
One word that you may hear a lot is “sleep hygiene.” This doesn’t refer to how clean your sheets are or if you have taken a shower before bed, it refers to how sleep conducive your lifestyle habits and environment include making changes to your sleep hygiene. Common lifestyle habits and non-sleep friendly environments include:
- Watching TV or using a computer or mobile device within 2 hours of going to bed.
- Not having an established night time ritual that includes changing close to sleep wear clothes.
- Having a bedroom that is too bright or busy.
- Having a bedroom that is too noisy or trying to sleep where you can be interrupted easily.
- Sleeping on mattresses that offer you poor body support.
- Having a “night cap” before bed.
- Eating or drinking alcohol too close to the time you want to go to sleep.
All of these things can be corrected by making changes to your lifestyle habits or environment.
Another common cause of sleep deprivation can be found in hormonal changes. These changes can occur during regular menstruation, menopause, and as a result of taking steroids. It is important to note that many herbal supplements and foods can also hormonal changes in men and women that can affect sleep patterns. Hormonal changes can be regulated through diet, supplements, exercise and prescription medications.
Stress, anxiety and hyper-vigilance
Your level of stress, anxiety and whether or not you have any hyper-vigilance present can also cause sleep deprivation. Hyper-vigilance is partially an adrenal disorder in which the body is flooded with adrenaline at unnecessary moments. It is also frequently experienced by people who have been through a trauma. Making changes to your lifestyle to reduce stress and manage anxiety and adrenaline better can help. Talking to your doctor or a counselor about any stress or worries can also help to relieve these symptoms. With hyper-vigilance, a combination of behavioral training and medication is often used to undo the adrenal reaction.
Obesity is being recognized as a primary cause of sleep deprivation by more and more studies. Being overweight, obese or morbidly obese can aggravate chronic conditions and contribute to chronic pain that can result in disrupted sleep patterns. Obesity can also cause and aggravate respiratory issues such as asthma and COPD. One thing to be mindful of is that when seeking relief for chronic conditions that are causing sleep deprivation that you also look to the causes of the aggravation of the chronic conditions. Very often, weight plays an important role.
Many medications can have the side effect of sleeplessness or insomnia. What many people don’t realize is that medications that don’t raise your risk for insomnia may do so when taken in combination with other medications. One good practice to develop is to speak with your pharmacist about possible interactions between any medications you are taken, supplements or herbal supplements. While each on its own may not cause a problem, putting them all together in the human body may create a reaction that prevents or interrupts sleep. If you are taking a medication that is causing insomnia or sleep deprivation, talk to your prescribing doctor about trying an alternative to lessen the symptoms.