What is Sleep Deprivation and Why is it Bad for You

Last updated on : July 04 2020

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Sleep Deprivation

If you stop to think about it, you can’t name one good thing about sleep deprivation, can you?

We have all experienced some lack of sleep. We all have those nights when we just can’t seem to fall asleep.

Either our minds are preoccupied with our daily lives, or we stay up late to watch TV or read, or maybe we stay out late – and the day after this sleepless night never feels good. We’re slow and sluggish, we’re not in the best of moods, and we simply wish we could go right back to bed, instead of trying to behave like a wide-awake human being and go about our day.

But one bad night of sleep does not equal sleep deprivation, does it? Let’s look at what sleep deprivation is exactly and why it is so bad for your mental and physical health.

What Is Sleep Deprivation?

We’re sleep-deprived even after just one night of poor sleep. However, what we usually mean by the term “sleep deprivation” is not getting enough sleep consistently over time.

As little as one night of insufficient sleep will mess with your focus and productivity. The longer this lack of sleep persists, the worse the symptoms and consequences will be.

How to tell you’re not getting enough sleep

The average adult needs 7 to 8 hours of quality sleep per night. But note the terms average and quality.

Just because science has established this average baseline, it doesn’t mean this is what you will require as well. While sticking with these general guidelines is an excellent way to start assessing your own sleep needs, the best way to determine them precisely is to test out different sleep schedules.

Give your body nine consistent hours of sleep on several consecutive nights and monitor how you feel afterward. Make sure you are sleeping for nine hours, and not just spending nine hours in bed. Then cut down to eight and a half. Then eight.

You get the idea.

Once you know how much you need to sleep, make sure you schedule that time in every day.

As for the term quality, it refers to the amount of rest you’re getting while sleeping. If you keep waking up frequently, if you toss and turn a lot, it won’t be as beneficial as sleeping soundly without interruption.

Cut out screen time before bed, make sure your mattress is comfy and suits your needs, engage in some exercise during the day, don’t eat heavy meals before bedtime, and try to engage in soothing activities before going to bed. It might take you some time to get used to it and fall asleep faster but be patient, and you’ll find yourself sleeping better soon enough.

Now let’s see what happens when you don’t:

Sleep deprivation causes memory issues.

The connection between sleep and memory is not one we think about often.

However, when we sleep, our brain forms links that then help us retain new information and process the things we have experienced during the day. When we sleep is when we formulate memories and conclusions. It is also why it’s so important to sleep after a study session, as sleep promotes information retention.

When we are sleep deprived, our brain can’t form these connections as quickly, and in turn, both our short- and long-term memory can suffer.

Sleep deprivation causes concentration issues.

You will likely have noticed this already. When you have not slept enough, you simply can’t focus like you can when fully rested. Your mind wanders off, and it can’t stick to the matter at hand.

Without having enough time to recover, your brain is merely tired. You can’t expect it to function like it normally would. And the longer you keep preventing it from getting the rest it needs, the worse your concentration will get.

This tiredness is why it’s always best to take a break when working on something, as opposed to working through the night. Not only will it be easier to work after a proper rest, but it will also be more efficient and bring better results.

Sleep deprivation impacts your mood.

Another symptom you have likely noticed in yourself, changes in your mood are one of the most common effects of sleep deprivation. When you lack sleep, you will be more emotional, your temper will flare up faster, and you will generally feel less joy.

If your sleep deprivation persists, you’re also at risk of developing anxiety and depression, which can further escalate if you don’t fix your sleep cycle.

Sleep deprivation makes you more prone to accidents.

Almost 20% of car crashes and car accidents are associated with a lack of sleep.

Experts have linked plane crashes to sleep deprivation, and there are, of course, those smaller accidents that don’t get counted: tripping and spraining your ankle, cutting yourself while chopping onions, walking into someone on the street.

Because it reduces your focus and attention, drowsiness naturally leads to impaired alertness, which makes it the gateway to accidents and injuries, both minor and fatal.

Sleep deprivation weakens your immunity.

When you don’t get enough sleep, your immune system is compromised and can’t defend your body correctly. This lack of defense leaves you exposed to some common viruses, such as the flu. However, a compromised immune system can also lead to more severe infections.

You are more likely to get sick when you’re not getting enough sleep, as every process in your body is weaker, making it easier to invade.

Sleep deprivation increases your risk of diabetes.

Lack of sleep affects the way your body produces insulin, the hormone that lowers blood sugar levels. The impact means that as sugar levels remain high, you are at an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

Sleep deprivation is also often a trigger for sugar cravings. And you will likely not only crave sugar but all kinds of calorie-dense foods, as they will provide more energy, something you desperately need when sleep deprived. This kind of diet is another reason why you may be at an increased risk of diabetes.

Sleep deprivation leads to weight gain.

Those into fitness will tell you that no matter how well you eat or work out, a lack of sleep will waste your efforts. That’s because enough sleep is the critical component not only of weight loss but also muscle growth.

But even if you’re not looking to get fitter, you will likely put on some weight only by not getting enough sleep.

First of all, there are the cravings and the raised insulin levels we’ve just mentioned. Secondly, your body will not be as efficient in burning fat when you are awake, which will cause those unhealthy food cravings to stick.

Sleep deprivation causes high blood pressure and can lead to heart disease.

Anything less than five hours of sleep per night puts you at an increased risk of high blood pressure.

Given that you’re also eating more than you need to, and that you’re probably gaining weight, these factors will all add to your risk.

High blood pressure then instantly puts you at an increased risk of heart disease and even stroke. Just think about the combination of that high insulin, the wrong diet, the compromised immunity, and the blood pressure spikes.

Heart trouble is not very far away.

Sleep deprivation causes skin issues.

When you don’t sleep enough, your eyes will get puffy. You will get dark circles and even bags under your eyes, and your skin will become sallow and start to sag.

Lack of sleep causes this through excess cortisol, a stress hormone that your body now releases more than before. Cortisol breaks down the collagen that is responsible for keeping your skin smooth and supple.

Not to mention that everything we have talked about so far (the lousy diet, the high blood pressure, the compromised immune system) can also lead to all kinds of irritations and issues with your skin, from dry patches to redness and much more.

How to fix it

First of all, know that the only way to deal with sleep deprivation is to get more sleep. There’s nothing else you can do. You can mask the symptoms with coffee, energy drinks, and so on, but it will not fix the issue.

Also, note that one night of proper sleep will not repay your sleep debt. You need to sleep well consistently for days, sometimes even weeks or months, to get your body back to normal.

Finally, you may never be able to erase some of the damage of sleep deprivation. To prevent the damage going any further, make sure you make sleeping well and enough your top priority from here on out.

Final thoughts

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We’re all conditioned to sacrifice sleep for all kinds of things: work, socialization, pleasure, company. But the simple truth is that the less sleep we get, the worse we will feel.

Instead of continuing to sacrifice sleep, focus on prioritizing and managing your time better. That way, you will ensure you stay healthy and happy for years to come.

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Editor: Charles Fitzgerald

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