In a world where stress levels are rising, exposure to natural sunlight outdoors is diminishing, and technology is leading to constant demands for everybody’s attention, it’s no surprise that so many people struggle to get enough sleep. What does it mean to be “sleep deprived”? What are some of the negative effects of sleep deprivation?
The broad definition of sleep deprivation is “the condition that occurs if you don’t get enough sleep.” The amount of sleep that qualifies as “enough” differs depending on who you ask. But it usually falls between about 7–9 hours per night for adults (and even more for children and teens). However, everyone is a bit different in terms of their ideal amount of sleep. Some need more like 6–10 hours of sleep per night to feel their best. Or, others simply need an extra couple hours of rest on occasion when feeling extra run down.
According to recent research done by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), between 7–19 percent of adults in the United States report regularly lacking sleep or not getting enough rest almost daily. And many more than this struggle with occasional sleep-related disorders or problems including sleep apnea, anxiety or night time pain that interferes with their overall quality of life.
If you’re someone who regularly gets less than the recommended amount of sleep, you’re at a higher risk for many different health problems. This includes health problems that are mentally and physically harmful. These can include: brain fog and fatigue; increased susceptibility to accidents or injuries; loss of productivity at work; irritability and moodiness; relationship problems; and even a greater risk of death due to problems affecting your heart and immune system. As you’ll discover below, some of the best sleep aids to help you get better-quality sleep include adjusting the type of light you’re exposed to daily, managing stressors in your life, making changes to your diet, and establishing a consistent night time routine.
Is Sleep Deprivation an Epidemic Today?
Getting enough sleep is a vital, dynamic part of a healthy lifestyle. The body needs adequate rest each night for a variety of reasons, including:
- fighting illnesses
- strengthening the immune system
- repairing damaged tissues
- hormonal balance
- maintaining cognitive health
Sleep deprivation and sleep deficiency have much in common. But they are actually considered to be two different conditions in the opinion of some experts. According to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, “sleep deficiency” is said to occur if you meet one or more of the following qualifications: (1)
- You don’t get enough sleep (you experience regular sleep deprivation).
- You sleep at the wrong time of day. This may mean not being able to sleep at night, but then taking naps during the day as a result of daytime fatigue. An abnormal sleep schedule is a sign that your body’s “natural clock” is not operating properly.
- You don’t get the type of restorative sleep that your body needs. This includes deep REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. REM is the type you need to restore many bodily processes and keep your body in balance.
- You have a sleep disorder. Various disorders can keep you from getting enough sleep, such as sleep apnea, insomnia, anxiety disorders or others. These can cause you to struggle to fall asleep, or to periodically wake up throughout the night.
Here are some eye-opening sleep deprivation and sleep deficiency statistics:
- Between 50 to 70 million Americans are estimated to have some type of chronic sleep disorder. This is around 1 in every 5 or 6 people.
- Approximately 8–18 percent of the general population struggles with insomnia.
- Sleep deficiency has been found to be more common among adults between 40–59 than any other age group. Those between the ages of 20–39 are also likely to be suffering from a lack of sleep. (2)
- Data from the National Health Interview Survey showed that about 30 percent of adults get on average less than 6 hours of sleep per day. The same study found that only about one-third of high school students report getting at least 8 hours of sleep on school nights.
- Around 35 percent of certain survey respondents report getting less than 7 hours of sleep during a typical 24-hour period. Forty-eight percent report snoring. Around 38 percent report “unintentionally falling asleep during the day at least once in the preceding month.” In adults over 65, more than 44 percent say they fall asleep unintentionally somewhat regularly due to fatigue.
- About 5 percent of drivers say they occasionally nod off or fall asleep while driving at least once per month. The National Department of Transportation and CDC estimate that “drowsy driving is responsible for 1,550 fatalities and 40,000 nonfatal injuries annually in the United States.“
Sleep Deprivation in Teens & College Students:
Sleep deprivation affects more than just busy, stressed adults. It’s also a growing problem among teenagers and college-aged young adults too. Sleep deprivation negatively affects their performance in school, moods and behaviors.
Some research suggests that college-aged individuals get on average about 6–7 hours of sleep per night. This is due to an “overload of activities” such as studying, socializing, working and staying up late using the internet. (3) What percentage of high school students are sleep deprived? Stanford University researchers have found that up to 87 percent of teens (almost 9 of every 10) are sleep deprived! (4) According to work done by the University of Georgia, students who get six or fewer hours of sleep per night report feeling more tired, stressed and sad. They’re missing out on how adequate sleep “restores our energy, helps us think clearly and creatively, strengthens memory, and produces a more positive mood and better performance throughout the day.”
Causes of Sleep Deprivation
What usually causes sleep deprivation in adults, and how do these causes differ from those in teens or even children? Surveys suggest that sleep deficiency is typically due to the following factors:
- A disorder that disrupts sleep, whether a thyroid disorder, dealing with pain, or something like acid reflux or sleep apnea. Snoring (related to sleep apnea) can also disturb sleep.
- A demanding, busy schedule. This can include lots of time commuting and family obligations.
- High amounts of stress.
- Effects of certain medications or stimulants.
- Alcohol consumption or using other stimulants.
- Eating a poor diet that can lead to blood sugar fluctuations.
- Eating too close to bedtime, or not eating enough with dinner/later in the day (such as if you’re fasting).
- Pregnancy and experiencing other hormonal changes.
The less sleep you get, and the longer this pattern continues, the more severe the negative effects of sleep deprivation on your health will be. Lack of sleep can take a toll on well-being whenever you’re not getting enough of one of the two basic types of sleep. These include the stages of sleep called “rapid eye movement” (REM) and “non-REM.”
Reasons Your Teenager May Not Be Sleeping Well:
Some of the reasons your teen may not be getting good sleep include:
- Staying up late using the computer, their phone, or watching TV.
- Wanting more time at night to “wind down” and relax after a demanding day, especially if homework takes a while to complete at night.
- Feeling stressed and overwhelmed in general, which interferes with sleep.
- Due to the effects of a poor diet, too little exercise during the daytime, and a lack of sunlight exposure.
- Engaging in stimulating activities before bed. For example, playing video games, doing something active that gets their heart rate up, or reading something that increases alertness.
Do teenagers really need more sleep than adults? If so, what is the best time for teenagers to head to bed at night and to wake up in the morning? Studies show that teens need around 9 hours of sleep per night until their early adult years, when the need tends to fall by 1–2 hours (bringing most adults’ needs to about 7–8 hours). Because most teens need to wake up early for school, getting to bed at a decent time is usually essential, although most teens resist this type of schedule. Every teen’s routine will be a bit different, but sleeping from about 9:30p.m. to 6:30a.m. (give or take an hour) is usually a good goal. Stanford Medical School reports that “surveys of over 3,000 high school students have found that those with higher grades report sleeping more, going to bed earlier on school nights and sleeping in less on weekends than students who had lower grades.”
Studies have found that teens and college students tend to sleep less during the weekdays and then sleep more on weekends to try and compensate for their accumulated “sleep debt.” However, there’s some evidence that this approach isn’t undoing the damage associated with daily sleep deprivation. Even after sleeping in on the weekends, many teens report still waking up fatigued most days and struggling through the demanding school day.
Main Sleep Deprivation Effects & Symptoms
What exactly happens in your body when you have interrupted sleep, too little sleep, or even no sleep at all? Sleep deficiency can interfere with productivity at home, in your relationships and at work. Some of the most common negative effects of sleep deficiency include:
- Higher risk for chronic diseases such as hypertension, diabetes, depression, cancer and overall mortality.
- Trouble concentrating at work or school. This can include finding it harder to learn, focus, be creative, meet deadlines, remember information or take tests.
- Difficulty driving, and sometimes being more prone to getting into accidents.
- Less motivation to be social, which can spill over to feeling more isolated and sad.
- Higher likelihood of being more sedentary (less physically active), which can contribute to weight gain.
- Increased appetite and higher risk for overeating, due to craving foods to help battle fatigue (especially processed, sugary or comfort foods).
- Poor moods, irritability, and even increased risk for depression. People who lack sleep report feeling more “cranky,” overwhelmed, angry, frustrated and worried.
What are the long term effects of sleep deprivation? Sleep not only causes changes in your brain, but can also impact your kidneys, lungs, heart and other vital organs. Some of the systems in the body negatively impacted by lack of sleep include: digestive, endocrine, central nervous and musculoskeletal systems. Sleep deficiency can contribute to: kidney stones, IBS, fertility problems, heart disease, headaches/migraines, arthritis, thyroid disorders and many other conditions. Heart and lung function can be disrupted when you’re not getting good sleep, and tissues in your muscles or GI tract may not be properly repaired.
Lack of sleep is associated with complications and worsened symptoms in people with respiratory problems, chronic lung and heart disease, obesity and high blood pressure. Sleep deprivation can increase the hormone called ghrelin, which is associated with hunger and cravings. Of course, it also disrupts brain function, reduces attention span, lowers willpower and makes you susceptible to poor moods. (6)
Can lack of sleep contribute to even more serious mental health problems in some instances, such as causing hallucinations or memory loss? Research suggests that in people who are prone to mental or cognitive problems, such as due to a history of trauma or genetic factors, sleep deprivation may trigger or worsen symptoms. (7)
Possible explanations as to why this occurs is due to increased inflammation, hormonal imbalances and alterations in the chemical called adenosine, which builds up in the brain during wakeful hours (as a byproduct of using energy) and can cause hallucinations in abnormally high amounts. A report published in the International Journal of Occupational Medicine & Environmental Health even states that “The impairment of performance which is caused by 20–25 hours of sleeplessness is comparable to that after ethanol (alcohol) intoxication at the level of 0.10% blood alcohol concentration.”
Conventional Treatment for Those Who Are Sleep Deprived
Sleep deprivation treatment depends on the underlying causes of the condition, along with how severe the individual’s symptoms are. For those diagnosed with a sleep disorder, treatments can include:
- Using natural herbs or supplements to help combat stress (like adaptogens such as valerian root, or melatonin supplements).
- Taking SSRI drugs to control anxiety or other mental health issues.
- Treating sleep apnea, obesity, acid reflux and other problems with various dietary and lifestyle changes.
- Managing pain with treatments such as physical therapy, exercise, stretching and sometimes drugs when necessary.
- Sometimes prescribing sleep aid drugs or sedatives when other options don’t help. Hypnotic “sleeping pills” can include: Ambien, Lunesta or generic names like Benzodiazepine, Zolpidem, Anxiolytic or Diazepam. (8)
Experts now encourage parents to get involved in regulating their teen’s schedule to prevent sleep deprivation. There has even been a push to start schools later in the morning to give teens more time to rest. Most experts recommend the following solutions for sleep deprived teens:
- Try to decrease schedule demands that are unnecessary and stressful. For example, limiting extra classes or activities at school that require very early wake up times. “Parents and teachers need to trim back their expectations and minimize pressures,” according to sleep researchers. For example, some schools are now making the first class/period of the school day optional for students, generally offered for advanced studies.
- Educate teens on how important sleep is for their performance at school, in sports or hobbies, and for their mood.
- Discourage late-night use of electronic devices, including texting, watching TV and surfing the web.
- Try to schedule meals around allowing time for a “night time routine.”
- Encourage your teen to be active during the daytime. This can lead to feeling more tired at night.
- Try to spend time outside with your teen when possible. This allows them to get enough sunlight and vitamin D to help regulate their “internal clock.”
6 Natural Treatments for Sleep Deprivation
1. Manage Stress
There are lots of ways to deal with stress in your life. But, only you can decide what’s realistic and actually effective. Some of the recommended approaches to decreasing stress that can keep you up include:
- Practicing meditation or prayer daily
- Reading calming books
- Spending more time outdoors in nature
- Joining a social, supportive group with people you enjoy being around
- Playing an instrument, making art or doing something else creative
- Using essential oils
- Doing yoga, deep breathing exercises or stretching
2. Avoid Blue Light at Night
Rather than using your phone, computer, electronics or watching TV, do something calmer that doesn’t involve exposure to “blue light.” The bright screens on electronics can lead to alertness due to changes in your eyes and brain. It can also sometimes cause headaches. Try instead to read a fiction book or something that is inspiring or about spiritual growth.
3. Increase Exposure to Natural Light During the Day
Just about every living organism has an internal 24-hour clock, a “circadian rhythm.” This helps them regulate a balance between wakefulness hours versus those spent resting. In humans (and many other animals), exposure to natural light is a very important regulator of tens of thousands of brain cells that are responsible for forming the circadian rhythm. The retina in the eyes transmits information about dark versus light to the brain, helping in the process. 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 so much of your body requires a pattern of light versus dark exposure to work properly, it helps to spend more time in natural light when the seasons allow. Some experts recommend sleeping with your curtains open in your bedroom to let light in when the sun rises. Also, try to get outside in the morning for at least 10–30 minutes (such as taking a walk). Any other time spent outdoors during the daytime can also help regulate your rhythm, plus it will increase your natural production of vitamin D. At night, try doing the opposite. Make your room very dark and reduce all artificial light exposure to sleep more soundly.
Daily exercise for at least 30–60 minutes, especially if outdoors, is one of the best ways to promote better sleep. Being active daily in the morning or during the day can help to regulate your circadian rhythm and lead you to feel calmer and sleepier at night. For some people, exercising at night close to bedtime can lead to increased alertness and trouble sleeping. So try experimenting to find what works best for you. Rather than pushing yourself to adhere to a schedule that you dread (such as very early before work or school), choose an exercise time that is enjoyable and allows you stay consistent.
5. Adjust Your Diet
Foods that can aid in helping you to fall asleep include: veggies, grass-fed beef, flaxseeds, chia seeds, wild-caught salmon, raw dairy and whole grains. To help keep you from feeling “wired” close to bedtime, 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 spike it. Examples include complex carbs like nuts, seeds, veggies or a source of protein like some frozen unsweetened yogurt. Also be sure to skip any caffeine after 2–3p.m., as sources like coffee can have lingering effects for hours. For extra help, you can additionally supplement with magnesium within 1 hour of going to bed (such as the brand CALM) and a omega-3 fish oil supplement daily to help with muscle relaxation, anxiety and reducing inflammation that can cause pain.
6. Create a “Bedtime Routine”
Your body craves a schedule and predictable routine. So ideally you will go to bed at roughly the same time every night and wake up close to the same time in the morning. Try to keep your bedroom very dark and also a bit colder than the rest of your house (a temperature between 60–67˚is thought to be ideal, according to the Sleep Foundation). A cooler room can decrease your core body temperature, in turn initiating sleepiness. Some people find that writing down their thoughts, worries or “grateful moments” of the day in a journal helps them feel calmer. Others like to sip some relaxing tea, use essential oils that are calming, read something inspirational, stretch or take a warm shower.
Precautions Regarding Sleep Deprivation Treatments
While a lack of sleep will certainly lead to feeling more tired, this isn’t the only reason you might be feeling low in energy. If fatigue is an ongoing issue for you, there may be other lifestyle factors to consider addressing, even if you already get enough sleep. These factors include:
- the quality of your diet
- timing of your meals
- work/life balance
- stress levels
- level of activity
- existing health conditions
For example, eating too infrequently might leave you feeling zapped of energy. Similarly, consuming too much sugar, calorie restriction or crash dieting, having abnormal blood sugar levels, hormone imbalance, and not getting enough movement might also make you feel more sleep deprived. To reduce the negative effects of consistently low energy levels, it can be helpful to keep a journal in order to track your symptoms and habits. This can enable you to pinpoint which types of variables might be either sabotaging your sleep, or robbing you of energy despite sleeping enough.
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.
Final Thoughts Sleep Deprivation Effects, Causes & Treatments
- Sleep deprivation is “the condition that occurs if you don’t get enough sleep.” This is also sometimes called “sleep debt” or “sleep deficiency.” It’s associated with problems including: fatigue, headaches, reduced productivity, mood issues, weight gain and higher risk for many chronic diseases.
- Some of the common causes of sleep deprivation are high amounts of stress, having a condition that causes wakefulness or pain, hormonal changes, pregnancy, a sedentary lifestyle, and poor diet.
- Natural ways to prevent or treat sleep deprivation include managing your schedule and stress load, adjusting your diet and stimulant intake, exercising, spending more time outside, and creating a “nighttime routine” to help you wind down.