Because different people need different amounts of sleep, there is no standard amount of missed sleep to determine that a person is sleep deprived. But, when a person doesn’t get the necessary amount of sleep to feel alert, awake, and able to function at their best, they are sleep deprived.
According to researchers at the Center of Sleep Medicine, the effects of severe sleep deprivation can be both mentally and physically destructive to such a level that sleep deprivation has historically been used as a means of torture. (As any mom with a newborn will understand.)
So, just what does lack of sleep do to our bodies and minds when it continues over a substantial period of time?
Studies show that even with fairly low levels of sleep deprivation, mood can be significantly affected. When deprived of sleep, it’s common to experience irritability, shortened temper, a heightened vulnerability to stress, and to feel more quickly saddened or angered. This means that your reactions to common situations may be more intense and out of proportion. You may have difficulty controlling your emotions. These effects often contribute to feelings of guilt for not managing emotional responses in a more controlled manner. For example, you may snap at your children, and then feel guilty for doing so. If this problem becomes chronic, this can have a negative impact over time with all of your relationships.
How Does Sleep Deprivation Affect Our Emotions?
The connection between sleep deprivation and off-kilter emotional responses had been shown extensively in research. The amygdala, the center of the brain which deals with rapid response to emotional stimuli, goes into overdrive when the brain is sleep deprived. We react with overly intense emotions not only to negative stimuli, but also to positive. All emotions become intensified.
At the same time that our emotions are at an unnaturally heightened state, the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which is responsible for impulse-control, becomes less responsive, so we are often not able to put the brakes on any irrational behavior.
During the normal stages of sleep, the brain undergoes serious restorative behaviors, including the intense emotional ups and downs of dreaming. While scientists still don’t understand everything about how and why we sleep, research suggests that dealing with strong emotions during the dream stage of sleep helps our emotions to be more on an even keel during waking hours. When deprived of this sleeping therapy, our brains react by over-reacting to stimuli during the daytime.
At the same time that we are in a state of hyper-aware emotions, we also lose cognitive ability, the ability to concentrate, and our problem-solving abilities become strained. This means that lack of sleep may affect our job performance, and our driving ability.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, fatigue and drowsiness are responsible for up to 100,000 auto crashes per year.
Physical Effects of Sleep Deprivation
Too little sleep has many negative physical effects, as well as emotional and cognitive ones. When chronically sleep-deprived, the immune system weakens, allowing you to become more vulnerable to viruses and other illnesses. Because being sleep deprived affects the body’s production of insulin, it puts you at an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes. It may also cause weight gain, because the part of our brain that tells us when we are full is impacted by lack of sleep. Feeling weak and tired often causes cravings for sugary, heavy, and salty foods, putting chronically sleep deprived individuals at greater risk for cardiac illness. Sleeping less than four hours per night also puts sleep deprived individuals at increased risk of developing high blood pressure.
How to Limit the Possibility of Chronic Sleep Deprivation
There are several options for treating insomnia and other sleep disorders that may be keeping you in a state of chronic sleep deprivation. Talk to your doctor about your sleep habits and sleeping problems so a plan for better sleep can be developed. There are also some basic things you can do at home to increase the likelihood of good sleep.
Choosing a good mattress can make a significant difference in the quality of sleep. Many experts recommend memory foam mattresses as part of better sleep solutions. Memory foam decreases pressure points by conforming to the shape of your sleeping body, rather than forcing the body to conform to the mattress. This allows for a more restful, comfortable sleep. It helps to support spinal alignment, resulting in less back and neck pain, which can interfere with deep sleep. Having a nice bed also aids sleep for partners who share a bed, because one partner’s movement does not disturb the other side of the bed, allowing for less nighttime wakefulness.
Sleep and Circadian Rhythm
Paying attention to circadian rhythm can also be beneficial to better quality sleep. Our ancient ancestors were not subjected to unnatural light in the evenings, meaning they probably went to sleep soon after the sun went down, and awakened naturally when the sun came up. And without alarm clocks, they were more likely to awaken naturally from the lighter part of the sleep cycle, rather than being snatched out of deep sleep by an alarm. Research has shown that following the natural circadian rhythm as closely as possible promotes better sleep.
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Does this mean we should go to sleep at sundown and rise at dawn? That’s not very compatible with the world we live in today, but experts tell us that we can follow a more natural, sleep-inducing, circadian rhythm by limiting exposure to blue light in the evenings. Blue light from light bulbs and screens reduces production of melatonin, the sleep hormone. Yellow light does not, meaning that for our ancient human ancestors, firelight did not interfere with their production of melatonin and ability to fall asleep. We can recreate this more natural environment by exposing our eyes to less blue light in the evenings. Candlelight, firelight, or yellow light from tinted bulbs or darkened lamp shades can aid our body in its production of melatonin, which leads to a better night’s sleep.
Many people with insomnia and other sleep disorders suffer in silence, believing their sleep deprivation affects only them, and therefore they should just put up with it and just push forward through their day. However, research shows that a sleep deprived person can have a negative impact on family life, and may even put others at risk when driving with lessened cognitive ability, reflexes, and response times, meaning it’s essential to seek solutions if you suspect you may be chronically sleep deprived.