At least one-third of Americans are sleep deprived. This means that they’re sleeping less than 7-9 hours a day. Considering the effects that sleep deprivation can have, this is a significant and scary number of people who are trying to live, work, drive, and function while very, very tired.
At its most basic, being sleep deprived means that you aren’t getting enough sleep. It means that you aren’t spending enough time in bed, eyes closed, heartbeat and respiration rate lowered. And it means that your body is not getting to do all of the things it needs to do while you sleep.
What are the Effects of Sleep Deprivation on the Body?
Sleep deprivation doesn’t just make us feel exhausted and irritable, it actually has some negative effects on the body. Here are just a few of the ways that sleep can keep us from living our best lives.
Sleep Deprivation Causes Unstable Blood Sugar and Weight Gain
When we’re tired, we want more energy. The way the body usually gets energy, while awake, is by eating. Thus, when we’re tired, our bodies actually consume more calories than they do when we’re well-rested. All of those extra calories have to go somewhere, and they tend to stick to the body as extra pounds.
Sleep Deprivation Harms the Immune System
When we sleep, we make necessary parts of our immune system’s fighting system. When we don’t get enough sleep, we don’t have time to make as many of these as we need to effectively fight of disease. Many of these substances also keep systemic inflammation down. When this rises, we are at higher risk for heart disease and autoimmune diseases, among others.
Sleep Deprivation Hurts the Brain
When we don’t sleep well, we don’t function well. We don’t make good choices and we aren’t able to react as well under pressure, and our attention tends to wander. We may also struggle with impulsivity. This is part of why drowsy driving is such a big problem!
In addition, sleep deprivation harms our mood. It correlates with higher levels of depression, suicidal thoughts, and paranoia.
How Do We Know if We’re Sleep Deprived?
It can be quite obvious when you’re sleep deprived. You’ll not only feel tired all day but sleepy, too. You may actually fall asleep in inappropriate places, like in class or during important meetings. You’ll probably yawn a lot, and you might be down, discouraged, or moody.
The effects of sleep deprivation can also hide, though. If you’re more clumsy than usual, or you are having trouble losing weight, or you’re making poor decisions and you’re not sure why make sure you’re getting enough rest. All of these can happen when you don’t get enough sleep.
What Can We Do About Sleep Deprivation?
Some cases of sleep deprivation are caused by an underlying condition. These include but are not limited to Restless Legs Syndrome, narcolepsy, and sleep apnea. If you suspect that you have one of these conditions or you’re trying to get good sleep and it’s not working, see your doctor to start the process of diagnosis. Left untreated, these conditions can cause chronic sleep deprivation. Once they’re treated, though, you will likely sleep more, and better.
If you don’t have an underlying condition, look at your sleep hygiene. Make sure you are making it likely that you’ll sleep well through your actions and your environment. Good sleep hygiene can include:
- Setting specific times for waking up and falling asleep…and sticking to the schedule!
- Avoiding screens that emit blue light, or blocking the blue light, for 1-2 hours before bedtime
- Making a bedtime routine that is comforting and relaxing
- Ensuring that your pillow and mattress support your body well and feel comfortable, according to your sleep position and your desires
- Making your room and immediate environment as dark and silent as possible
- Exercising regularly, though probably not right before bed
- Avoiding foods that are excessively fatty or rich, or ones that tend to upset your stomach
- Refraining from naps longer than 20-30 minutes during the day, even when you’re tired
Putting these into practice could make falling asleep drastically easier for you. Make sure, too, that you have enough time to sleep. If you need to, give up an activity or change your habits so you have time to fall asleep, sleep for your desired amount of time, and wake up slowly. Without the time, the habits won’t matter at all.
Sleep deprivation may be an epidemic, but it’s one we can stop. When we seek treatment for the conditions that keep us from sleep and clean up our sleep hygiene, we will sleep more. This will make us safer, happier, healthier, and more stable, both as individuals and as a culture.