Sleep deprivation is broadly defined as a condition that occurs if you don’t get enough sleep. What qualifies as “enough sleep”? That depends who you ask, but the suggested amount is about seven to nine hours per night for adults. Everyone is a bit different in terms of their ideal amount of sleep, and children and teens typically need more sleep. For those not getting enough sleep, here are the causes, symptoms, and best sleep deprivation treatment methods.
Sleep Deprivation Causes
Sleep deprivation in adults is typically due to one of a few factors.
A disorder that disrupts sleep is one of the common sleep deprivation causes. This includes a thyroid disorder, dealing with pain, acid reflux or sleep apnea. A demanding, busy schedule and high amounts of stress are common sleep deprivation causes as well. Effects of certain medications, stimulants, alcohol, or eating a poor diet can also create sleep issues. Eating too close to bedtime, or not eating enough late in the day are also factors. Pregnancy and hormonal changes are the last of the major factors.
The less sleep achieved and the longer the pattern continues, the more severe the negative effects of sleep deprivation will be. Everyone needs both “rapid eye movement” (REM) and “non-REM” sleep.
Teenagers often do not get enough sleep because of staying up late using the computer, phone, or TV. They often want more time at night to “wind down” and relax after a demanding day. This especially happens if homework takes a while to complete at night. Feeling stressed and overwhelmed in general is another factor. The effects of a poor diet, too little exercise during the daytime, and a lack of sunlight exposure may also be involved. Engaging in stimulating activities before bed, like playing video games, may also raise the heart rate or increase alertness.
Research suggests college-aged individuals get on average about 6–7 hours of sleep per night. An “overload of activities,” including studying, socializing, working and staying up late using the internet, is causing the issue. (1) Another study found that up to 87 percent of teens (almost 9 of every 10) are sleep deprived! (2) Students who get six or fewer hours of sleep per night report feeling more tired, stressed and sad.
Sleep Deprivation Symptoms
Some of the most common sleep deprivation symptoms and negative effects include the following.
1. Higher risk for chronic diseases such as hypertension, diabetes, depression, cancer and overall mortality.
2. Trouble concentrating at work or school. This can include finding it harder to learn, focus, be creative, meet deadlines, remember information or take tests.
3. Difficulty driving, and sometimes being more prone to getting into accidents. The CDC has found sleep insufficiency is “linked to motor vehicle crashes, industrial disasters, and medical and other occupational error.” (3)
Other symptoms include less motivation to be social, which can lead to feeling more isolated and sad. There is an increased likelihood of being less physically active, which can contribute to weight gain. Sleep deprived people also have an increased appetite and higher risk for overeating. This is due to craving sugary, processed foods to help battle fatigue. Poor moods, irritability, and even increased risk for depression are other symptoms. People who lack sleep report feeling more “cranky,” overwhelmed, angry, frustrated and worried.
Long term, sleep deprivation affects the kidneys, lungs, heart and other vital organs. The digestive, endocrine, central nervous and musculoskeletal systems can also be affected. This can contribute to kidney stones, IBS, fertility problems, heart disease, headaches/migraines, arthritis, and thyroid disorders.
Research also suggests that in people prone to mental or cognitive problems, sleep deprivation may trigger or worsen symptoms. (4)
Sleep deprivation symptoms can interfere with productivity at home, in your relationships and at work.
Sleep Deprivation Treatment
1. Effectively Manage Stress
Sleep deprivation treatment starts with dealing with stress in your life. Find what is realistic and effective for you.
Practicing meditation, reading calming books, spending more time in nature, and exercising are common relaxation practices. Joining an enjoyable social group, playing an instrument or otherwise being creative, and doing yoga are also helpful.
2. Stay Away From Blue Light at Night
A key sleep deprivation treatment is avoiding blue light at night. Instead of using your phone, computer, or watching TV, do something calm without exposure to “blue light.” The bright screens on electronics can increase alertness due to changes in your eyes and brain. It can also sometimes cause headaches. Try to read a fiction book or something inspiring instead.
3. Increase Exposure to Natural Light During the Day
Just about every living organism has an internal 24-hour clock, or “circadian rhythm.” This helps regulate a balance between wakefulness hours versus those spent resting. In humans, exposure to natural light is a very important regulator of tens of thousands of brain cells responsible for forming the circadian rhythm. The retina in the eyes transmits information about dark versus light to the brain. Levels of the hormone melatonin rise and fall depending on light exposure. They peak during the night when it’s dark (between 3–4a.m.) in order to help with sleep. Then they decrease at dawn and during waking hours when it’s light to keep us awake.
Because your body largely requires a pattern of light versus dark exposure to work properly, spend more time in natural light. Get outside in the morning for at least 10–30 minutes. At night, do the opposite and make your room very dark to sleep more soundly.
4. Exercise Regularly
Daily exercise for at least 30–60 minutes is one of the best ways to promote better sleep. Being active daily can help regulate your circadian rhythm and lead you to feel calmer and sleepier at night. For some people, exercising at night can lead to increased alertness and trouble sleeping. Find the best time to exercise for you that is enjoyable and effective.
5. Adjust Your Diet Properly
Eat foods that can help you in falling asleep like vegetables, flaxseeds, chia seeds, raw dairy and whole grains. Try not to eat foods high in simple carbohydrates or sugar after dinner.
If you need a snack after dinner, make one with foods that will help stabilize your blood sugar rather than raise it. Complex carbs like nuts, seeds, veggies or a source of protein like frozen unsweetened yogurt are great.
Always skip any caffeine after 3 p.m., as sources like coffee can have lingering effects for hours. For extra help, you can use magnesium within 1 hour of going to bed to reducing anxiety or inflammation.
6. Create a Regular “Bedtime Routine”
Your body craves a schedule and predictable routine. Ideally, go to bed at roughly the same time every night and wake up at the same time in the morning.
Keep your bedroom very dark, and if possible a bit colder than the rest of your house. A temperature between 60–67˚is thought to be ideal. A colder room can decrease your core body temperature, initiating sleepiness.
Some people find that writing down their thoughts, worries or “grateful moments” of the day in a journal helps them feel calmer. Many drink relaxing tea, use calming essential oils, or take a warm shower.
If you continue to feel fatigued even after making these lifestyle changes, see your health care provider to make sure you don’t have an underlying health condition that’s causing the fatigue.