The term “sleep deprivation” is a term synonymous with fast-paced thrillers and wartime, or with brand new parents walking around like zombies for those first few weeks of their newborn’s life. But sleep deprivation isn’t exclusive to extreme situations – it can affect all of us. Recent studies estimate that 33% of US adults suffer from sleep deprivation, and this problem has worsened over time as we’ve developed a culture of working long hours and staying up late on our screens and devices.
What is sleep deprivation?
Sleep deprivation is simply the state we enter when we don’t get enough sleep. You’ve likely experienced that drowsy, zombie-like feeling of going to bed too late or waking up frequently in the night, and that is sleep deprivation on a small scale.
The real problems come when we continue to get too little sleep night after night. This is common among those who work shifts, especially if they alternate night and day shifts, those who work long hours and then want to stay up to relax before going to sleep, parents of young children, students, those with insomnia, and anyone who has more to do in a day than they have time.
What are the symptoms of sleep deprivation?
When we’re tired and sleep isn’t an option, most of us will turn to food for the energy we need to keep going. And, while a bowl of oatmeal would likely be the best thing to sustain us, we often reach for those fast highs, such as caffeine-rich coffee, energy drinks, and sugar. This means we start a rollercoaster of energy highs followed by crashes.
That increased need for carbohydrates and sugars means we’re often eating more than we need, which causes weight gain, and sleep deprivation further worsens this because a lack of sleep impacts the gut microbiome.
When our gut microbiome is unbalanced, we’re far more likely to develop metabolic syndrome, which also leads to weight gain. This imbalance can also lead to leaky gut syndrome, which results in vitamin deficiencies that further slow the metabolism.
Reduced Concentration & Reaction Time
You may have heard that driving while tired is often as dangerous as driving under the influence, and this is because our ability to concentrate and react quickly is drastically reduced when we’re sleep-deprived. The CDC attributes 6,000 deaths per year to drowsy driving.
Mood Swings & Easily Upset
When we’re tired, we often have the emotional range of a toddler. We’re much more likely to want to cry or have an outburst because we’re tired and easily upset. Worse, these mood swings rarely swing into being happy or upbeat but instead vary between anxiety, dissatisfaction, irritability, anger, and sadness.
What are the consequences of sleep deprivation?
Acute sleep deprivation, which is what you experience for just a short time (such as while looking after a new puppy or working overtime on a project with a deadline), can lead to accidents and mistakes you wouldn’t otherwise make. For example, you may get into a car accident, send an email to the wrong person, forget to pay a bill, fall out with your partner, family, or friends, and similar misfortunes.
Chronic sleep deprivation, which is what you experience if you continue to struggle to get quality sleep for 3 months or more (such as while working multiple jobs or an extremely demanding job), can have much more severe consequences. Long-term sleep deprivation can lead to heart disease, diabetes, obesity, autoimmune problems, hormonal disorders, inflammation, anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder.
How many hours of sleep should I be getting?
How many hours you need varies from person to person, but the average is 7-9 hours a night for adults. The quality of your sleep is also a factor, as 6 hours of deep, restful sleep will be better for you than 9 hours of waking up frequently and tossing and turning.
It’s best to experiment with how long you sleep and see what works for you, as well as what time you start to settle down for the night. Make sure you start creating a ritual around going to bed so your body gets the signal that it’s time to switch off. Try things like reading before bed, listening to audiobooks or podcasts, or listening to relaxing music. Avoid anything too exciting or stressful right before bed, or you may find yourself too wired to fall asleep on time.
How do sleep deprivation and insomnia differ?
Sleep deprivation and insomnia can be linked, but one doesn’t always equal the other. You may be experiencing sleep deprivation because you’re not getting enough sleep, despite getting 6 hours a night. Someone who works two jobs during the week and sleeps religiously between 2am and 7am will likely still be suffering from sleep deprivation, simply because few people can manage on 5 hours of sleep a night.
Insomnia, however, is difficulty or even an inability to fall asleep or sleep restfully for long periods. Many people with insomnia aren’t short on time they can sleep, but struggle to get the sleep they need, and thus experience sleep deprivation.
How should I combat sleep deprivation?
There are a few key things you can do to combat sleep deprivation:
- Eliminate stressors in your life where possible (could you look for a less demanding job or one at a company with better values?)
- Exercise regularly
- Create a wind-down routine so your body learns the cues that it’s time to rest
- Avoid using screens late at night
- If you can’t get to sleep, listen to music, an audiobook, or podcasts instead of looking at screens or getting out of bed
- Eat a healthy, well-balanced diet.
Magnesium and Vitamin B6 are essential if you want to experience deep, restful sleep regularly. While you should always try to eat healthy whole foods to get the nutrients you need, we all know that life sometimes gets in the way. To ensure your body gets all the nutrition it needs to experience restful sleep each night, consider taking a magnesium and B6 supplement, such as our Rest & Digest. When your body has an abundance of the nutrients it needs, you’re much more likely to experience deep, restful sleep.
Dr. Nancy Rahnama, MD, ABOM, ABIM, is a medical doctor board certified by both the American Board of Obesity Medicine and the American Board of Internal Medicine. Her specialty is Clinical Nutrition, that is, the use of nutrition by a medical doctor to diagnose and treat disease. Dr. Rahnama has helped thousands of people achieve their goals of weight loss, gut health, improved mood and sleep, and managing chronic disease.