A single night without sleep (or not enough sleep, or low-quality sleep) is a miserable experience, and likely to leave you irritable and worn out throughout the workday that follows. Some people struggle with falling asleep, others with staying asleep; some can’t seem to hit the snooze button enough, or nap enough, to make up for the sleep lost overnight. There’s lots of good advice to be found on how to get more sleep: when to wake up, when to go to bed, how to arrange your body in bed, and what to consume if you’re trying to avoid Ambien or other habit-forming sleeping pills.
Unfortunately, many people (especially women) only find sleep harder to come by as they get older. For some, poor sleep quality is the rule, not the exception. The longer you go without sufficient sleep, the more sleep you need to make up for that deficit. This experience is known as sleep deprivation, and the health consequences can be severe.
What is sleep deprivation?
Sleep deprivation just means you aren’t getting enough quality sleep. According to the Mayo Clinic, most adults need between seven and nine hours of sleep a day. You’ll likely need more than that if you’re pregnant, sick, or stressed — or if you’ve experienced poor sleep quality in previous nights. Some people claim to need much less than seven hours of sleep, but they’re likely affected by sleep deprivation whether they realize it or not. One night of sleep deprivation may affect you in relatively minor ways, but the consequences accumulate the longer you go without quality sleep. Physicians sometimes refer to this phenomenon as “sleep debt.”
What are the signs I’m sleep deprived?
According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, the biggest indicator of sleep deprivation — as well as its biggest side effect — is excessive daytime sleepiness. If you’re tired all day, particularly if you aren’t doing anything strenuous that would explain it, there’s a pretty good chance you didn’t sleep well enough last night.
What are the side effects of sleep deprivation?
Clearly, there is some overlap here between signs and side effects, but here we’ll focus on the longer-term, more serious consequences sleep deprivation can cause over more prolonged periods.
Longer-term sleep deprivation can affect one’s mental health, contributing to anxiety, depression, and even behavioral changes like impaired decision-making. Sleeplessness, which tends to run low on REM cycles, is also harmful to creativity. Over time, this same lack of REM sleep might pose a greater risk of dementia.
Chronic sleep deprivation can also be responsible for a lower sex drive, and, alarmingly, an increased sensitivity to physical pain. Studies have repeatedly shown that impaired sleep can predict new incidents of chronic pain as well as worsening chronic pain. Not getting enough sleep quite literally hurts.
There are more traditionally physical side effects of sleep deprivation, too. These include heightened risk for high blood pressure, heart attack, obesity, and diabetes.
Sleep deprivation is also associated with worsened immunity, which means if you’re not sleeping enough, you’re more likely to get sick than you otherwise would be. If you do get sick, sleep deprivation can also increase the length of your recovery.
And because sleep is also essential to motor skills, sleep deprivation can have disastrous outcomes in environments that require one’s full attention and function as well. Driver fatigue was estimated to be responsible for at least 91,000 crashes and 795 deaths in 2017, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
How do I catch up on sleep?
Though sleep deprivation (or sleep debt) has many real-word consequences, many can be avoided. It’s not possible to “catch up” on many days’ or weeks’ worth of low-quality sleep in a single weekend, but sleep experts say you can pay off sleep debt over time. Start off small — shooting for an hour more each night — and tell yourself you’re sleeping better already. Soon enough, your brain just might believe it.