Sleep deprivation is not something that most people seek out or enjoy. In fact, most people are very active in their efforts to avoid it. This is partly because, well, sleeping is enjoyable and partly because the effects of sleep deprivation are wide ranging and can wreak havoc on our daily lives.
What Is Sleep Deprivation
It is important to understand that when we use the term “sleep deprivation” that we aren’t talking about those once in a while instances of not getting a full night’s sleep. We all experience sleeplessness—maybe someone calls us early in the morning and we can’t get back to sleep. Maybe we stay up too late one night working and don’t get in a full eight hours. These things are not sleep deprivation. Sleep deprivation is typically defined as prolonged sleep deprivation or long term sleep deprivation: the instance of many nights—often in a row—in which a person fails to achieve a decent amount of sleep.
Sleep Deprivation Types
There are several different types of sleep deprivation from which a person can suffer and which range in severity.
On the more minor side of the scale we have acute and partial sleep deprivation in which the sleeplessness lasts for less than two days or where some sleep actually is achieved but there is less than our bodies need and so our “sleep debt” gets built up over time.
On the more extreme side of things there is Chronic and Extreme sleep deprivation. This is where the sleeplessness lasts longer than just a few hours or days and goes on for so long that a person might start to experience extreme physical symptoms in addition to the already present feelings of being tired.
REM Sleep Deprivation falls on the harsher side of the spectrum. REM (Rapid Eye Movement) deprivation is where the body sleeps but not ever deeply enough to achieve a proper REM cycle (which is considered by experts to be the most “productive” and important part of your overall sleep cycle).
Sleep Deprivation Facts
Throughout history there have been many studies done on the different stages, dangers, risks, etc of sleep deprivation. Studies and documentaries have been done on the use of sleep deprivation for the purposes of torture. Other people went through long bouts of voluntary sleeplessness seemingly for fun.
Clete A Kushida, for example is known to be one of the foremost experts on sleep deprivation. He has been researching the effects of obstructive sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome and some of the most important countermeasures for sleep loss. He has done several experiments and completed several clinical studies all in the name of helping people get more and better sleep.
Some of the most interesting research done on Sleep Deprivation has centered on those who have tried to set world records for sleeplessness:
Peter Tripp, for example, in 1959 went two hundred and one hours (or almost eight and a half days) without sleeping. He used stimulants to stay awake and spent this time locked in a glass booth in Times Square in which he could be observed and his actions could be recorded. It was through this experiment that people learned quite a lot about the dangers of not getting enough sleep. The people who were close to him said that he was never quite the same person after this experience—he lost his job, had several failed marriages and was often withdrawn and depressed.
Randy Gardner lasted longer than Peter Tripp. Gardner, knowing full well of the risks involved, lasted two hundred and sixty four hours (or eleven days) without sleep. He was seventeen at the time. While he suffered from some psychological damage during the experiment, once he finally was allowed to sleep (he slept for fifteen hours) he went back to “normal.” Unlike with Peter Tripp, he didn’t appear to have been affected by the experiment.
Symptoms of Sleep Deprivation: Signs of Sleep Deprivation in Children, in Teenagers and Adults
There are all sorts of different symptoms of sleep deprivation from the obvious, like when children have tantrums to the more subtle, like adults who are able to fall completely asleep within five minutes of lying down.
The most obvious symptom of sleep deprivation, whether you are a child, teenager or adult, is the feeling of being tired. This is often paired with irritability and difficulty concentrating. Some people find that the more deprived they are of sleep, the more socially inept they become.
The more extreme symptoms of dealing with sleep deprivation are heightened stress levels—if you find that even the slightest things are causing you to “wig out” you probably need a nap. This was true when you were young, why wouldn’t it be true when you are a teenager or an adult? You might also suffer from memory loss (this is why it is important to get a good night’s sleep before taking important tests).
Another, less obvious, symptom of sleep deprivation is a change in appetite that can’t be explained by anything else. Sometimes people who are overly tired and who are having trouble sleeping will undergo extreme changes in appetite—they’ll swing from feeling ravenous to feeling like they never want to eat again.
There are so many reasons that a person could suffer from sleep deprivation. Heightened stress levels, the feeling of being jet lagged, more anxiety than usual—these can all lead to a person having difficulty sleeping at night. If you are drunk or have been indulging in too much alcohol, these could also make you have difficulty sleeping (yes it’s true some people do use alcohol to induce feelings of tired and sleepiness but that doesn’t mean that getting drunk will always have that effect on your body).
Sometimes there are medical reasons for a person to become sleep deprived. Perhaps the person is a diabetic or suffering from a vitamin deficiency. These have adverse effects on the hormones we need to keep our brains balanced. They affect our ability to produce serotonin and even, sometimes, prevent the synapses in our brains from firing properly, which can lead to sleeplessness.
Over time, conditions like OCD can also lead to sleep deprivation. People who suffer from Obsessive Compulsive Disorders often have a hard time falling asleep if things in their rooms are not exactly “right” or if there has been a change or hiccup in their routine (either during the day or while they were getting ready for bed). Sometimes, believe it or not—going without sleep for long periods of time can bring on temporary bouts of OCD.
People who are in the military, particularly those on active duty often report sleep deprivation. This comes from having to work and be alert for long hours at a time and, when they come home, they have a hard time adjusting to “normal” life and the sleeplessness continues. This is particularly true for military personnel who suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
The Effects of Sleep Deprivation on Children, Teenagers and Adults over the Long Term
The Effects of Sleep Deprivation vary wildly, depending upon whether the person suffering from it is a child, a teenager or an adult. They also vary depending upon the duration of the sleeplessness.
During the early stages of sleep deprivation, a person might suffer from the following effects of sleep deprivation:
Upset stomach and nausea
Memory loss or alteration
Minor changes in appetite
Change in libido
Cause accidents (many of the automobile accidents reported today are caused by feelings of fatigue, which is brought on by not getting enough sleep)
As the sleep deprivation continues the following effects might start to manifest:
He or she might begin to hallucinate or suffer from delusions or delirium
Poor academic performance
Poor job performance
Loss of appetite, weight loss or, alternatively, weight gain or even the onset of obesity
Dizziness or Vertigo
If it continues further, the following might occur:
Blurred vision or other vision problems
Inflammation and joint Pain, particularly even in the knees
Changes in blood pressure
If left untreated, a person could even start to have seizures, develop or feed an already existing cancer, go insane or die from sleep deprivation. It sounds extreme to say that sleep deprivation causes death but in some cases this has proven to be true.
Treatment and Tips for Coping with Sleep Deprivation
There are a lot of different ways to try to treat sleep deprivation. Some people prefer to stick with natural remedies, like developing a dependable bedtime routine, eating foods that are rich in tryptophan, drinking warm milk, taking cold or hot showers, etc. There are a lot of things that you can do for yourself to help you get a better night’s sleep.
Of course, sometimes the natural remedies for sleep deprivation aren’t going to help you achieve the sleep you need to achieve. What’s worse is that if left untreated, sleeplessness can cause psychosis. This is why; if you cannot cure your sleep deprivation on your own within a short amount of time it is a good idea to seek therapy.
A trained therapist will help you figure out what is causing you to stay awake. He or she will help you identify the triggers that are causing your sleep deprivation and help you find and develop the tools you need to deal with those triggers successfully. Sometimes you can do this naturally. Other times, medications are involved.
Xanax is one of the most popular medications used for people who suffer from sleep deprivation or anxiety.
Zolpidem is a very popular drug for helping people treat short term insomnia. It’s proven to be quite effective in helping a person get to sleep each night though it does not really help a person stay asleep. The good news is that it works within about fifteen minutes of having taken it. The bad news is that it doesn’t last long.
Other drugs that are popular for treating sleep disorders are Ketamine and Xyrem (which actually helps prevent narcolepsy, which is on the other end of the sleep disorder spectrum from sleep deprivation).
Sleep Deprivation Statistics
Over the course of many surveys and studies, the following sleep deprivation statistics were revealed:
26% of high school students and teenagers get less than six and a half hours of sleep every night.
The average baby gets between fourteen and fifteen hours of sleep.
50% of newborn babies get between thirteen and sixteen hours of sleep each day/night.
The average toddler needs to nap for almost two hours during every daytime.
Around seventy percent of all college students suffer from insomnia at some point in their academic careers.
Over two million children suffer from sleep disorders
The 2010 “Sleep in America” poll reported that the average adult, whether they are natural born citizens of the US or whether they are born in the UK, in Japan, in Korea, in France, etc (you get the idea), has an average bedtime of around eleven PM.
The CDC issued a report in 2011 that called sleep deprivation a public health epidemic. The associated chart listed all of the percentages of accidents linked to people feeling tired. It’s pretty scary.
During pregnancy women need a few more hours of sleep at night to fight off feeling sleep deprived.
Sleep in the elderly is often lighter and more fitful and that is why it is important for older adults to take naps when they feel tired.
New parents, particularly new moms going through the effects associated with the postpartum period often report sleep deprivation as a side effect of learning to handle life with a new baby.
There is a ton of information out there on sleep deprivation. If you or someone you know has been trouble sleeping, do some homework—educating yourself is the first step in being able to go back to getting a good night’s sleep.