The quantity and quality of our sleep impacts all aspects of our health and wellbeing – and experiencing sleep deprivation can have a fundamental effect on us.

The CDC recommends at least seven hours of sleep each night. But data collected shows almost 40% of adults do not achieve this amount.

While the odd night of struggling to sleep is to be expected, an ongoing lack of quality sleep can affect performance at work or school, ability to function from day to day, health and overall quality of life.

What is sleep deprivation?

‘Sleep deprivation’ is a lack of sleep. A sleep disorder, a medical condition or environmental and lifestyle factors can cause sleep deprivation.

This can take the form of repeated poor sleep, struggling to get to sleep or stay awake. Or, in extreme cases you may be awake for days at a time.

After 24 hours of sleep missed, you will already be feeling effects such as drowsiness, irritability, and decreased alertness.

After 36 hours, the symptoms become more intense and you may start to have microsleeps (of up to 30 seconds). Cognitive performance impairment causes issues with memory and decision making, and difficulty learning new information. There are also physical effects such as increased inflammation, extreme fatigue, and impaired immune function.

By 48 hours, you are now struggling with ‘extreme sleep deprivation’. You may even begin to hallucinate and may be experiencing heightened stress levels and depersonalisation. And by 72 hours – or three days – your perception will be significantly impaired with delusions and disordered thinking.

If you are awake for 96 hours/four days, your perception of reality will be severely distorted (sleep deprivation psychosis). By now, your urge for sleep will feel unbearable.

How does sleep deprivation affect your health?

Sleep deprivation can have an impact on various aspects of your health, including:

  • The immune system:
    Those who are sleep deprived may be more prone to becoming unwell and make take longer to feel well again.
  • Your weight:
    Sleep affects hormones which control feelings of hunger and fullness, and can trigger insulin release. This can cause increased fat storage, changes in body weight, and a higher risk of Type 2 diabetes.
  • The cardiovascular system:
    There is an increased risk of cardiovascular disease associated with too little sleep. This is because sleeping helps the heart vessels heal and affects blood pressure, sugar levels and inflammation control.
  • Hormone levels:
    Growth hormones, testosterone and stress hormones like cortisol are all produced during sleep. Poor sleep can also affect the production of fertility-boosting hormones.
  • The brain:
    A lack of sleep affects the prefrontal cortex, which controls reasoning, and the amygdala, which deals with emotion.
  • Increased risks:
    Long-term sleep deprivation makes a person more susceptible to hypertension, obesity, heart attack, stroke, depression, and anxiety.

What can cause sleep deprivation?

Environmental or lifestyle factors can cause sleep deprivation. These could include: shift work, the room being too hot or cold, using electronic devices too near bedtime, or stress.

Causes can also be medical such as: chronic pain, depression, chronic fatigue syndrome, anxiety, or bipolar disorder.

There are also several sleep disorders: insomnia, sleepwalking, night terrors, snoring, and sleep apnoea.

Top ways to improve sleep:

  • It can be tempting to nap, but this can make it more difficult to sleep at night.
  • Lying in bed struggling to get to sleep can be counterintuitive. Instead, get up for a short time and go back to bed when you are feeling a bit sleepier.
  • Eating healthily and getting regular exercise are ideal to help promote better sleep patterns.
  • Worrying about sleep can be stressful – instead focus on relaxing both your body and mind to improve sleep quality.
  • Keeping a sleep diary can help identify whether certain factors (such as noise or light) are affecting your night.

If all of the above fail to improve your sleep, then you can think about treatment options which include:

  • Over the counter sleep aids (ideal for the occasional sleepless nights)
  • Prescription sleeping pills (although these become less effective over time)
  • Light therapy (designed to reset your body’s internal clock, and used for severe insomnia)
  • Breathing devices (used to help alleviate sleep apnoea).

At Belgravia Healthcare, we have specially trained dieticians able to offer expert advice on all aspects of nutrition and wellness, helping guide you towards a healthier lifestyle – which in turn can support better sleep. Do get in touch to find out more!

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