How to Conquer Sleep Deprivation Like a Champ

man suffering sleep deprivation symptoms

Whoever said “you snooze, you lose” had it wrong. When it comes to wellness, getting plenty of sleep is actually winning.

While it may seem like nothing to, ahem, lose sleep over, lack of z’s can lead to some pretty big health consequences. But how do you know if you’re getting the sleep your body and mind need? And what are the warning signs for an empty sleep tank anyway?

Before we examine what you can do to stay refueled and recharged, let’s first define sleep deprivation, including sleep deprivation symptoms:

girl with insomniaWhat is sleep deprivation?

Not sleeping “like a baby?” Well, you’re far from alone. In fact, 45 percent of Americas admitted that “poor or insufficient sleep affected their daily activities at least once in the past seven days,” according to a National Sleep Foundation poll.

Sleep deprivation happens when a person routinely fails to get enough sleep (something that happens in about one in five adults). While the amount of sleep each individual requires varies, on average, most adults need around seven to eight hours every night to feel well rested and productive. Teenagers should aim for about nine hours of sleep per night, and children should get nine hours of sleep or more, depending on their age.

sleepy business manWhat are some common sleep deprivation symptoms?

Besides generally feeling tired or drowsy during the day, here are 10 signs you might be shortchanging yourself on sleep:

When your head hits the pillow, you’re down for the count. It might seem like falling asleep immediately is a sign you’re a good sleeper, but it isn’t so. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, if you usually fall asleep within five minutes of lying down, you probably are sleep deprived (and may even have a sleep disorder).

You’re arguing a lot with your spouse. Skimping on sleep can make it more difficult to handle or avoid conflict, so your partner forgetting to take out the trash might send you into orbit.

You just can’t seem to concentrate. Combined with an inability to stay focused, not getting sufficient sleep can hinder your ability to make last-minute or quick decisions, such as slamming on your brakes to avoid a car accident.

You’re starving all the time. Sleep deprivation can increase your appetite by impacting two important hormones called leptin and ghrelin. Leptin tells your body to stop eating, providing the sensation of fullness. Ghrelin, on the other hand, tells us we need to eat or that we’re hungry. When you don’t sleep enough, the leptin/ghrelin balance is off (there is a decrease in leptin and an increase in ghrelin).

Simply speaking, you talk funny. The frontal lobe of your brain is associated with speech, constructive thinking and creativity, and therefore, is significantly affected by lack of sleep. People who aren’t sleeping enough have trouble with spontaneous complicated speech. As a result, they may slur, stutter, and/or use more cliches and monotone speech.

Your judgment should be judged. Opt for a chili dog and large fries instead of your usual salad for lunch? Give your credit card the workout it doesn’t need with some impromptu online shopping? Too little sleep can lead to poor judgment and impulse control, such as unhealthy eating binges, irritability and mood swings, and doing things like going on a shopping spree without considering the consequences.

You’re a total klutz. Sure, some people are naturally clumsy, but sleep deprivation can wreak havoc on your motor skills.

You forget stuff. A lot of basic things, like your neighbor’s name or your wife’s birthday. Sleep deprivation can mess with your head. Good sleep nurtures memory consolidation and emotional processing. Without proper rest, it is more challenging to form memories, as well as act rationally and thoughtfully.

You’re a space cadet. If you miss your exit on the highway or do things throughout the day without remembering them later (i.e., you’re zoning out and/or not aware and in the moment), you probably need more sleep.

You’ll snooze whenever the mood and moment strike. Falling asleep the minute you go into a dark or quiet/boring environment (e.g., a matinee at the movie theater or as a passenger on a long road trip) is a sure sign your sleep is suffering, especially if you do this during typical daylight hours. Generally, you should feel energized and alert during the day.

kids staying up lateSleep Deprivation: Causes and Effects

The Causes

Common causes of sleep deprivation include:

Bad sleep habits or hygiene: Your own personal habits can interrupt your sleep or decrease the quality of your sleep. For example, drinking a cup of coffee, smoking a cigarette or watching TV close to bedtime can reduce the likelihood of drifting off to dreamland.

Sleep disorders: More than 85 sleep disorders are recognized by the American Sleep Disorders Association, impacting the lives of around 70 million Americans. The most common sleep disorders include insomnia, sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome and narcolepsy. As prevalent as they are, most sleep disorders are undiagnosed and untreated.

Illnesses: Colds, tonsillitis, asthma and other common illnesses can cause a person to snore, gag or wake up frequently, fragmenting his/her sleep.

Work: Those who do shift work disrupt their sleep-wake cycles on a routine basis. People who travel often, like airline crew members, also have erratic sleep patterns.

Personal choice: Some people don’t recognize or worry about the importance of a good night’s sleep. Instead of turning in at a decent hour, they simply stay up late to work, read, socialize, watch TV or surf the web.

Parenthood: Parents, particularly of young children, almost always experience sleep deprivation because their babies, toddlers or even older kids wake often during the night, and seek out their support and comfort.

Medications: If you depend on medications for a chronic condition or even a minor illness, you may find yourself battling sleep deprivation. Certain heart, blood pressure and asthma drugs, as well as over-the-counter (OTC) medicines for colds, allergies and headaches can disturb normal sleep patterns. Some drugs prescribed to treat epilepsy or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) can also lead to insomnia.

Sleep environment: Is your bedroom too hot? Do your curtains let in too much light? Does your partner snore? Sleep can be disrupted for a variety of environmental reasons.

The Effects

Not sleeping enough or well is something you should make every attempt to fix. Chronic sleep deprivation can significantly affect your health and wellness, performance, safety, and ultimately, your wallet.

Some of the consequences of inadequate z’s include:

Memory and cognitive impairment: Decreased alertness and excessive daytime sleepiness make it harder for you to think and process information, as well as impair your ability to remember things.

Poor performance: Those who are sleep deprived face a serious reduction in performance and alertness. Decreasing your sleep by merely one and a half hours for just a single night can result in a reduction of daytime alertness by as much as 32 percent.

Losing out on life quality: When you’re tired all the time, you might not be able or willing to participate in certain activities that require your undivided attention, such as going to a movie, watching your child’s soccer game, reading a book or watching a favorite television show.

Stress on relationships: If you have a sleep disorder or are chronically sleep deprived, this can cause problems for your partner or those you love (e.g., moodiness, more arguments, separate bedrooms, sleeping on the couch).

Higher risk of chronic disease: Persons experiencing sleep insufficiency are also more likely to suffer from high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, depression and obesity. For example, there is evidence linking heart disease with sleep apnea.

Car crashes: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has estimated that every year, drowsy driving results in at least 100,000 automobile crashes, 71,000 injuries and 1,550 fatalities.

Workplace injuries: Workplace safety is very much influenced by what workers do and don’t do before they ever show up for work. For instance, excessive sleepiness contributes to a more than twofold higher risk of sustaining an occupational injury. A study published in the Journal of Sleep Research concluded that fatigue “contributes to human error and accidents in technology-rich, industrialized societies.”

woman sleeping in hammockHow to Get Better Sleep

Did you know if you get six hours of sleep per night for two weeks straight, your mental and physical performance drop to the same level as if you’d stayed up for 48 continuous hours? You might think your performance is the same when you’re sleep deprived, but it definitely isn’t.

Many of us who are burning the midnight oil for work are losing out on performance in the long run. Keep in mind: sleep is as essential for human beings as breathing and eating. The good news is, there’s a lot you can do to overcome sleep deprivation.

If you feel like you’re having a lot of trouble sleeping, talk to your doctor. He or she may encourage you to make certain lifestyle changes to help you get better sleep. These could include:

Create the ideal sleep environment. Do whatever you need to do to create the ideal sleep environment—from wearing earplugs to closing the curtains to using a fan for “white noise.” Most people sleep best in a cooler room (around 65 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit). Remember, your bed should be used for sleep and sex only. For example, if you watch television or eat in bed, it can become associated with distracting activities.

Maintain a regular sleep schedule. You should go to bed and get up at the same time every day, even on weekends. This will help ensure you establish a regular sleep rhythm.

Avoid naps. Napping during the day can disrupt sleep at night. If you have to take a nap, one short nap (30 minutes) in the afternoon (before 3 p.m.) is best.

Avoid stress and stimulation before bedtime. This could include vigorous exercise, arguments, and TV, video game or mobile device usage. Instead, focus on quiet activities like reading, knitting or listening to soft music.

Don’t read from a back-lit device (such as an iPad). If you use an eReader, use one that isn’t back-lit (i.e., one that requires an additional light source). Light from computer screens, TVs, tablets and phones can hinder the production of melatonin, the hormone your body needs to enter the sleep phase.

Limit caffeine, alcohol and nicotine. Do not consume caffeinated beverages or food at least eight hours before bed. Avoid drinking alcohol in the evening. Alcohol might make you feel sleepy, but it also interferes with sleep quality. Quit smoking (or avoid smoking at night), as nicotine is a stimulant.

Regulate your natural sleep-wake cycle. Increase light exposure during the day (e.g., take breaks outside in sunlight) and limit artificial light at night (e.g., to boost melatonin production, use low-wattage bulbs, cover windows and electrical displays in your bedroom, and turn off the TV, cell phone and computer screen at least one hour before bedtime).

Practice relaxation techniques. Find ways to reduce your stress and you’ll nod off more easily. Examples include deep-breathing exercises, meditation, exercise and journaling.

Exercise regularly. Regular exercise helps your brain and body power down at night. Middle-aged, fit adults who work out on a consistent basis sleep significantly better than those who are overweight or obese. With this said, you may want to avoid exercising two or three hours before bedtime, as the physical and mental stimulation could make you feel wired.

Eat well and you’ll sleep well. While it isn’t good to go to bed hungry, it’s also sound advice to avoid heavy or spicy meals before you rest, as an over-full or irritated stomach can keep you up at night.