Written by: Bianca Mastromatteo, MLIS
Sleep. We all do it. Not just humans. Our cats, dogs, rabbits, fish, all need to sleep. Ideally, humans are supposed to spend about 1/3 of our day sleeping. While some of us may wish we could forgo sleep in the pursuit of other activities, sleep is as vital to our survival as eating, breathing, or exercise. “But why?” Well, that’s going to take some explaining. So put on your PJs, grab your thinking cap, slip on your slippers and let’s start this adventure into sleep, sleep deprivation, and how to become super sleepers.
Why Should I Care?
Sleep is a big deal for something we pay next to no attention to. There are so many physiological changes that occur during sleep that it’s easy to see how short-term and long-term deprivation can have measurable effects on your health and wellbeing. Throughout the 4 stages of sleep our brain activity, heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tone, respiration, body temperature, and our sex drives all fluctuate. Our sympathetic nervous system, renal function, endocrine function, and airways also change during sleep.
Those are essentially, the major systems that keep us going. It’s only natural that sleep, or the lack thereof, can really knock us out.
More shocking is how common is sleep deprivation, especially among non exercising individuals…
“A survey conducted by the National Sleep Foundation concluded that more than half of non exercising individuals had trouble falling asleep.”
What is Sleep Deprivation?
Sleep deprivation can come in a variety of forms. It can be an initial struggle to fall asleep. It can be interruptions to sleep throughout the night. It can also be restless or non-restorative sleep during which you don’t wake up but aren’t sleeping properly.
Restless sleep can normally be attributed to a disorder such as restless leg syndrome, sleep apnea, and narcolepsy. Other conditions that can lead to a poor night’s sleep are anxiety, diet (consuming caffeine), drug abuse, and using electronics before bed. This last one is connected to your circadian rhythm which can be altered by shift work, travel, electronic screens, and light. (More specifically, light minimizes the production of melatonin which is what makes us sleepy.) In addition to sleep, the circadian rhythm also controls metabolic activity, heart rate, muscle tone, body temperature, and hormone secretion.
While some of these things are in our control, there are other reasons why someone might not get a great night’s sleep:
New parents often suffer from broken disrupted sleep.
Those with chronic illnesses requiring medication to be administered overnight, and their caregivers, also suffer.
Pain can wake people up in the night.
There are also medical conditions that can cause someone to need to urinate several times throughout the night.
Lastly, some people (usually teens), make a choice to deprive themselves of sleep in exchange for extra time to earn money, read, playing video games, etc.
What Are the Short-Term Effects of Sleep Deprivation?
Most of us are familiar with the short-term effects of sleep deprivation. This is because at some point most of us have experienced them first hand. We’ve become moody, clumsy, and lost the ability to focus. We’ve become forgetful, felt fuzzy, been unmotivated, and eaten a ton of carbs in fog. In some cases, people can experience depression, apathy, and/or reduced sex drives. While these are temporary and can be fixed with a few good nights of sleep, there is a moderate danger of accidents occurring while impaired by sleep deprivation. More alarming, are the long-term effects for those who can’t get to sleep.
So What Are the Long Term Effects?
While we sleep our blood pressure and heart rate drop for significant portions of the night. It is during this time that our body heals damage to the heart.
Not sleeping enough can put us at risk of hypertension (high blood pressure) and heart disease.
There has also been a connection between lack of sleep and high cholesterol.
Sleep loss has been connected to weaker immune systems and increased speed of tumor growth. During sleep, our bodies create cytokines which our body needs to fight off viruses and infection. While cytokines may sound like a supervillain, they are actually more like the bat signal. (They act little destress beacons which signal healing cells to areas of infection or trauma.) Cytokines also play a role in promoting sleep which creates a bit of a vicious cycle of sleep deprivation. The effects seen in cancer are attributed to exposure to light during the night and a reduction in melatonin. These effects are most noticeable in those who work nights.
Sleep deprivation effects the regulation of many hormones. A decrease in leptin and an increase in ghrelin lead to increased appetite and weight gain.
A lack of sleep also effects the body’s ability to recognize low insulin levels which increases the chances of developing type 2 diabetes. Compounding these problems is feeling too tired to exercise.
Also related to hormones, is a disruption to the production of growth hormone seen in children and adolescence. Growth hormone isn’t just about height, it’s involved in the building of muscle and the repairing of cells throughout our bodies.
Another effect that is mostly seen in teens is the development of poor self-esteem and suicidal thoughts.
Disrupted sleep, in particular, can lead to lower levels of testosterone. This is because it replenishes at about 3 hours into the sleep cycle. While this can have developmental effect in teens, it can also lead to a lower sex drive in adults.
“Sleep loss has been connected to weaker immune systems and increased speed of tumor growth.”
Many of these sort-term and long-term effects are interconnected. Additionally, most are among the factors leading to sleep loss we already discussed. When these effects compound upon each other, it creates a cycle that worsens continuously if left unchecked.
“Sleep deprivation affects the regulation of many hormones. A decrease in leptin and an increase in ghrelin lead to increased appetite and weight gain.”
An Easy Guide: How to Manage Sleep
Now that you are feeling anxious about not sleeping, it’s a great time to let you know that you are not powerless in your quest for some serious Zees.
While some people might be naturally gifted sleepers, and others might have legitimate medical or life circumstances keeping them up. For those of us that struggle, there are things we can do to improve the effectiveness of the sleep we get in the time we have:
While not necessarily a popular option, we can cut down on naps…or cut them out entirely.
Exercising during the day is a great way to promote good sleep. We can minimize our caffeine intake and stop consumption earlier in the day that we’d probably like. Think noon if you are on a regular schedule.
Which brings us to routines. In a perfect world no one would have to work at night and we could all make use of our body’s internal clock, the circadian rhythm. Since the world isn’t ideal, we can at least make a habit of going to bed at the same time each night and waking up at the same time every day. Yes, even on the weekends and on holidays. It may sound crazy, but going to bed when you get tired at night increases your ability to fall asleep. Conversely, if you are having trouble falling asleep you should stop trying, get up for a bit, and do a quiet activity until you feel sleepy.
We can refrain from over-exhilarating ourselves before sleep by avoiding food and exercise before bed and choosing calm relaxing activities such as reading, meditating, or taking a bath. Lastly, back to that circadian rhythm thing, we can avoid screen time or use blue light filters on our devices before bed.
In the event that these techniques are not enough, there are medications that can help. There are over the counter medications you can talk to a pharmacist about or more potent ones your doctor can prescribe to you.
Davis, K. (2018) What’s to know about sleep deprivation? Retrieved from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/307334.php
Medic, G., Wille, M., & Hemels, M. E. (2017). Short- and long-term health consequences of sleep disruption. Nature and science of sleep, 9, 151–161. doi:10.2147/NSS.S134864
Watson, S., & Cherney, K. (2019) The effects of sleep deprivation on your body. Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health/sleep-deprivation/effects-on-body#7
Hirshkowitz, M. (2013, March 10). National Sleep Foundation Poll Finds Exercise Key to Good Sleep. Retrieved from https://www.sleepfoundation.org/press-release/national-sleep-foundation-poll-finds-exercise-key-good-sleep