The side effects of sleep deprivation are vast and may have profound consequences on our mental and physical health. Adequate sleep is not only vital for our survival but for optimal emotional, psychological, cognitive, physical, and spiritual functioning as well.
The fact that we humans spend approximately one-third of our life sleeping is a clear indication of its importance to our health and well-being, however, we are only beginning to understand the depth of its many roles.
Although anyone may be vulnerable to an occasional night of sleeplessness that may disrupt the following day, it is the lack of sleep on a regular basis, also known as sleep deprivation that has long-term consequences.
We are a sleep-deprived society and this is wreaking havoc not only on our mental, physical and spiritual health, but society as a whole as work productivity and the way we interact with one another is greatly impacted.
Long-Term Side Effects of Sleep Deprivation
Lack of sleep can be as dangerous to your health as smoking. Studies have shown that people who slept 7 to 8 hours a night lived significantly longer than those who didn’t. In a long-term study by the Wisconsin Sleep Cohort, it was found that people who experience chronic sleep deprivation are three times more likely to die than those who sleep well.
Getting enough sleep appears to play a crucial role in a healthy nervous system, emotional health, memory, learning, problem-solving, release of hormones, decision making, social interaction, immune function, maintaining body temperature, concentration, inability to lose weight, obesity, type 2 diabetes, depression, anxiety, heart disease, appetite, neurotransmitter function, and many more. As a matter of fact, sleep has an impact on pretty much any medical condition that exists in one way or another.
The long-term side effects of sleep deprivation can be exhibited in all areas of your life including:
- Emotional – you may be more frustrated, irritable, cranky and moody
- Social – you may be difficult to get along with, or have a lack of desire to socialize
- Cognitive – impaired ability to learn, poor memory, decreased problem solving abilities
- Physical – productivity is impaired, fatigue, a compromised immune system which leaves you vulnerable to disease, infection, and colds etc.
- Safety – judgment may be impaired, your less aware and alert which can lead to accidents, hand eye coordination is impaired
- Spiritual – it may be hard to experience inner peace, feel connected and whole or to find the depth, meaning and purpose in life that you desire.
Sleep also restores our physical and mental energy. The body repairs itself while we sleep. It detoxes, heals, and replenishes. Thus, for any individual living with chronic illness or chronic pain, obtaining adequate sleep is even more vitally important. We need adequate sleep to help us cope with stress, relieve pain and fatigue, and keep symptoms to a minimum. Lack of sleep in the chronically ill often increases pain and fatigue and exacerbates whatever symptoms they may experience.
Another study from Stanford University found that lack of adequate sleep is as dangerous as being drunk. Sleep deprivation results in confusion, anger, fatigue, and an impaired ability to drive.
Lack of sleep also leads to an increase in ghrelin, a hormone in our body that tells us when we’re hungry, and a decrease in leptin, the hormone in our body that tells us when we’re full. Thus we remain hungry all the time, will overeat, and have cravings for sugar and carbs. It also decreases insulin sensitivity and can lead to insulin resistance.
Symptoms and Signs of Sleep Deprivation
The two most common signs of sleep deprivation are:
- daytime sleepiness
However, other symptoms may include, but are not limited to:
- lack of concentration
- falling asleep during the day
- falling asleep as soon as your head hits the pillow
- need caffeine or other stimulants to stay awake or get going
- feeling utterly exhausted in the morning
- excessive yawning
- inability to sleep
- overwhelming need to sleep through the day
- waking through the night
- making lots of avoidable mistakes
- slow reaction time
- inability to handle stress
- memory and concentration difficulties
- cravings for sugar and carbs or compulsive overeating
It’s important to note that many of the signs of sleep deprivation can also be the result of other conditions or issues. For example, many of the symptoms listed above can also be a sign of adrenal fatigue, hypothyroidism, or menopause. So it’s important to see a physician and rule out other factors.
Long-term sleep deprivation can even lead to serious symptoms like hallucinations, paranoia, and delusions.
How Much Sleep do We Need?
The amount of sleep we need is dependent on several factors, with age being the most prominent. For example, newborns and toddlers may need 18 hours, while adolescents typically need 9 or 10, and the average adult needs between 7 and 9.
Our sleep needs may also be dependent on the level of physical activity we engage in, those who exert themselves a great deal may need more than a sedentary person, but that may not always be the case, because a job that requires a great deal of mental and cognitive activity can be just as tiring as working in the garden all day.
So how much sleep do we need actually varies from person to person and changes throughout the cycle of life. Experts used to recommend seven to eight hours of sleep, but it is now believed by some experts that the average adult needs an average of nine hours of sleep. Some need less and some need more.
For those living with chronic illness, more may be required, or frequent naps will be necessary. Your body will tell you how much sleep you need if you pay attention. Feeling refreshed and well is often not possible for those with chronic illness or pain, but find the amount you need to function as optimally as possible for your situation.
A good rule of thumb is this: Don’t use an alarm clock — Sleep until your body wakes up. This is how much sleep you need.
Lack of Sleep Causes
One of the primary reasons we are a sleep-deprived society is because people don’t’ understand the importance of sleep and since most people don’t have enough time in their days, they don’t make it a priority in their life. Most people are living a life that is going too fast in the fast lane. They are short on time, have too many demands, and have too much to accomplish in one day. So they cut sleep out of their schedule to make room for everything else and although it works as a short-term solution, in the long run, the end result is detrimental to their health and counterproductive.
People must come to understand that getting adequate sleep is a basic need, just like eating and going to the bathroom. They must make it a priority in their life. They must make time for it and understand that their quality and even the quantity of life may be in jeopardy.
The second major contributing factor to sleep deprivation is the inability to sleep or insomnia. Insomnia is one of the most common medical complaints in our society and it is estimated that 10 to 15 % of the population may be suffering from chronic insomnia.
By definition, insomnia is the inability to fall asleep or stay asleep once sleep has been attained. There is primary insomnia – which means it occurs without any other health condition – and secondary insomnia – which means it is the result of another underlying condition like a headache, respiratory problem, arthritis, etc.
There are also three types of insomnia — transient, short-term or acute, and chronic or long-term. Transient usually lasts for just a few nights while short-term insomnia may be two to four weeks. Both transient and acute often occur in response to a temporary life event like the break up of a relationship or loss of a loved one, medication, something you ate, stress, weather, noise, jet lag, etc. It’s over when the situation that is setting it off resolves itself and although there are short-term consequences, there are no long-term consequences to deal with.
Chronic insomnia is ongoing and happens almost every night for a month or longer and sometimes for even years. As anyone who has dealt with even one night of sleeplessness knows, this can be maddening. It has a profound impact on the quality of life and this is when the consequences become a serious concern.
Causes of Insomnia
There are many causes or contributing factors to insomnia. Some are major and some are minor and sometimes it varies depending on whether you’re dealing with transient, acute, or chronic insomnia. However, the items in bold below are the major factors that are found in almost everyone with chronic insomnia.
Neurotransmitters and Hormones
To understand why insomnia is practically an epidemic in our society, you must first understand that chemicals in the brain called neurotransmitters regulate our sleep/wake patterns. If these neurotransmitters are not functioning properly, are disrupted, depleted, or imbalanced it will impact whether we sleep or not and the quality of our sleep. Serotonin levels that are too low or epinephrine/norepinephrine levels that are too high or melatonin levels that are too low will result in insomnia or sleep disturbances. High levels of glutamate or histamine can also disrupt sleep.
On the other hand, getting enough sleep is important for proper neurotransmitter and hormone functioning. Going without sleep doesn’t allow neurotransmitters to ever have any downtime to rest, which causes receptors to lose sensitivity to the neurotransmitters, thereby making the neurotransmitter essentially impotent. Thus, why we all notice, that our brain does not function well or we become moody and irritable when we go for extended periods without sleep. Lack of sleep will also increase your stress hormones, making you less effective at dealing with stress and increasing the need for neurotransmitters that are already low in numbers. Thus getting adequate sleep is crucial for keeping neurotransmitters in balance.
Additionally, our hormones and adrenal glands also contribute to our patterns of sleep. A progesterone deficiency, excessive estrogen, too much cortisol in the evening, not enough DHEA, adrenal deficiency, and thyroid disorders can all contribute to insomnia.
There are many factors that impact how our neurotransmitters, hormones, and adrenal glands function. Each of the factors below is a major contributor to creating deficiencies, imbalances, or malfunctioning in our neurotransmitters, hormones, and adrenal glands.
- Sugar, white flour, caffeine, grains, high carb foods and other junk food is not only destructive to our health, but they also have a serious impact on the neurotransmitters in the brain
- Common everyday toxins found in your perfume, air fresheners, cleaning supplies, personal care products, herbicides and pesticides, laundry soap, carpeting, fabric softener etc., as well as heavy metal poisoning and mold can also disrupt, alter, and deplete neurotransmitters, hormones and adrenals. Learn how toxins impact your health and reduce your exposures.
- High levels of stress that don’t ease up also have a negative impact on hormones, adrenals and neurotransmitters.When you have high levels of stress you have high levels of norepinephrine in the brain, an excitatory neurotransmitter that results in insomnia, irritability, hyper-alertness, inability to relax and more, if it is stimulated in excessive amounts. This neurotransmitter sets off the fight or flight system that is activated when we are under stress. If the stress does not ease up, then you remain in fight or flight.Additionally, when you are under stress, your inhibitory neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin and endorphins/enkephalins are called to modulate the stress. Thus when there is chronic stress these neurotransmitters become depleted.Plus, when you don’t sleep this sets off the stress response system, so it becomes a vicious circle.Remaining in a state of chronic stress also puts excessive demand on your adrenal glands, which first results in cortisol that is too high and then cortisol that is too low, if it continues unresolved.
- Sometimes neurotransmitters can be out of balance because the individual is born with a genetic polymorphism in some of the enzymes needed to produce neurotransmitters. If these are identified, interventions can be used to get around them.
Undiagnosed food sensitivities are often a major contributing factor to insomnia because they too have the ability to alter neurotransmitters and cause a variety of other disruptive symptoms that may interfere with sleep.
Nutritional deficiencies, particularly in magnesium, calcium, iron, B1, B5, B6, B3, B12, and folic acid or excessive levels of copper, chromium, or vitamin D are also common culprits of insomnia.
Many people with insomnia are deficient in tryptophan. Tryptophan is needed to make serotonin and serotonin is needed to make melatonin. Melatonin is our primary sleep hormone; without it, you can’t sleep.
Other possible causes of insomnia may include alcoholism; nicotine; recreational drugs; gastrointestinal disturbances like SIBO; excessive noise; need to urinate; chronic pain; disturbance in circadian rhythm; working shifts; not allowing enough time for sleep; excessive worry; traveling across time zones; medical conditions; menopause; PMS; adrenal fatigue; methylation problems; autonomic nervous system dysfunction; problems restless leg syndrome and sleep apnea.
Do not use drugs (prescription or otherwise, to assist you in sleeping). Drugs interfere in stage IV sleep, which only aggravates symptoms and robs you of the benefits you should derive from sleeping. Drug-induced sleep is not healthy sleep. There is also a risk of becoming dependent on sleep aids, and it is best to avoid them if possible.
The good news is that the side effects of sleep deprivation and insomnia can be successfully addressed with the use of a variety of natural sleep aids that get to the root of the problem. Reduce your stress with activities like deep breathing exercises, mindfulness meditation, exercise, yoga, and spending time with nature; identity and correct nutritional deficiencies; identify food sensitivities; reduce exposure to environmental toxins by living a green and environmentally friendly lifestyle, and follow the Paleolithic diet.