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Sleep deprivation and its ill effects

Updated on October 1, 2013

Sleep deprivation results when an individual does not have enough sleep. It is an overall lack of necessary amount of sleep. Sleep requirements vary from person to person and even from day to day. Infants require about 16 hours of sleep, whereas teenagers need about 9 hours of sleep. Women in the first three months of pregnancy often need several more hours of sleep than usual. The average sleep requirement of an adult is 8 hours but the normal range is from 6 to 9 hours of sleep per night. As people age, the sleep becomes fragmented. About 80% of people above 60 years of age wake up more often and for longer periods during the night. They also experience less deep (rapid eye movement or dreaming) sleep.

The amount of sleep an individual needs also increases when the individual has been deprived of sleep in previous days. Getting too little sleep creates a sleep debt, which eventually the body will demand to be repaid. We don’t seem to adapt to getting less sleep than we need.

One night of short sleep won’t put an individual at serious risk but one week can. Sleep deprivation can have some serious and far-reaching bad consequences for the body.

Ill effects--

  • Increases stroke risk- Sleep deprivation can up the risk for stroke. Adults aged 45 years and older who regularly sleep less than 6 hours have four times the risk of stroke than those who sleep seven or eight hours a night. Chronic sleep deprivation affects adversely the blood vessels of the brain predisposing people to the risk of stroke. Therefore, the people should be more aware that the amount and quality of sleep is important for the quality of their health.
  • Leads to obesity- It seems that 6 hours of sleep or less bumps up the production of the hunger hormone ghrelin and limits leptin, which regulates food intake. This can spur some less than ideal food choices including serving larger portions and hankering for junk food. Other reasons for obesity are that the sleep deprived people are too tired to exercise decreasing the calories burnt and have more opportunities to eat because they are awake longer.
  • Ups diabetes risk- A link between sleep deprivation and insulin resistance has been established. Even three weeks of sleep deprivation can change insulin activity. Insulin’s job is to help the body use glucose for energy. In insulin resistance, cells fail to use the hormone efficiently resulting in high blood sugar.
  • Fuels memory loss- Sleep deprivation can lead to permanent cognitive problems. Sleep plays an important role in memory both before and after learning a new task. For something to become a memory, three functions must occur, viz., acquisition (learning or experiencing something new), consolidation (the memory becomes stable in the brain) and recall (having the ability to access the memory in the future). Both acquisition and recall are functions that take place when we are awake. However, researchers believe that sleep is required for consolidation of a memory. Without adequate sleep, the brain has a harder time absorbing and recalling new information.
  • Damages bone- In rodents, sleep deprivation contributes to cause osteoporosis. So, in humans, the impact of sleep deprivation can be understood in relation to the inability to repair bone damage as we age. Raised level of cortisol due to lack of sleep also contributes to the loss of bone density.
  • Increases cancer risk- It has been reported that those who sleep less than six hours per night have a higher rate of developing polyps – the abnormal growths in the colon, which are likely to progress to become cancerous tumors in about 10% of cases. It has been suggested that women who sleep fewer hours may develop more aggressive breast cancers compared with women who sleep longer hours. Melatonin is believed to protect against cancer by affecting levels of other hormones, such as estrogen. Low levels of melatonin allow estrogen levels to rise. Too much estrogen is known to promote the growth of breast cancer. The researchers have investigated that there is a possible association of reduced level of melatonin and risk of colon and breast cancers. Melatonin can prevent tumor cells from growing; it is cancer protective.
  • Weakens the immune system- Research indicates that sleep deprivation affects adversely the white blood cell count in humans as well as the body’s ability to fight infections.
  • Hardens the arteries- Stress caused due to lack of sleep sharply increases the cortisol level in the body, which can lead to the hardening of the arteries and sometimes causing heart attacks. A study found that people who slept for six hours or less each night had a 48% of higher risk of developing or dying from heart disease. In addition, very high cortisol levels can lead to muscle loss, high blood pressure, and lower growth hormone and testosterone production.
  • Causes depression and irritability- Lack of sleep also causes depletion of neurotransmitters in the brain that are in charge of regulating mood. Because of this, sleep deprived people have a “shorter fuse” and also tend to get depressed more easily. An inability to sleep that lasts over a long period of time is also an important clue that someone may be depressed. Missing one night of sleep can cause one to remember 59% fewer positive words, thereby making one overly focused on the negative.
  • Can kill- Deaths due to sleep deprivation have also been reported! A 2010 study examined the impact of short sleep on mortality and found that men who slept for less than six hours of sleep a night were four times more likely to die over a period of 14 years.
  • Disturbs co-ordination- The research has shown that the driving ability and hand eye co-ordination are affected as badly as or even worse than people who are intoxicated. Therefore, it is no wonder that drowsiness is a major cause of traffic accidents and deaths.

Daytime drowsiness indicates sleep lack or deprivation. Apart from this, short episodes of micro-sleep are another hallmark of sleep deprivation. They may be so transient that one may not be aware that they are occurring. Developing and maintaining a healthy sleep cycle is the only way to overcome the effects of sleep deprivation. An individual can take the help of a health care professional in learning to develop good sleep habits.

Tips for sleep hygiene—

Sleep hygiene means promotion of regular sleep habits. Some of the useful and time tested tips are as follows—

  1. We should go to bed at the same time each night and rise at the same time each morning.
  2. The bedroom should have a quiet, dark and relaxing environment, which should neither be too cold or too hot.
  3. The bed room should be comfortable and be used for sleeping and sex. It should not be used for any other activity. There should be no TV, computer or other gadgets in the bedroom. Screen time or other media use before bedtime interferes with sleep.
  4. Create a bedtime ritual to relax the mind and body. This may include taking a warm bath or shower, reading a book or listening to soothing music. I personally like to do short meditation of 15 minute’s duration accompanied with meditation music.
  5. We should avoid large meals before bedtime. Meals should preferably be taken at least two hours before sleep.
  6. Nicotine, caffeine and alcohol deserve caution too. The stimulating effect of nicotine and caffeine can wreck havoc for quality sleep. Alcohol will make you feel sleepy at first but will disrupt sleep later in the night.
  7. One should limit daytime naps.
  8. Include exercise in the daily routine. Regular physical exercise can promote better sleep, helping you to fall asleep faster and to enjoy deeper sleep.
  9. Manage the stress well.


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    • Dr Pran Rangan profile image

      Dr Pran Rangan 4 years ago from Kanpur (UP), India

      Thanks for the comments Dataload. Daytime naps of short duration of 10 to 20 minutes are quite OK; in fact, they are invigorating for many. Many have labeled them power naps but if such daytime naps interfere with falling asleep at bedtime, they should be avoided or limited.

    • DATALOAD profile image

      DATALOAD 4 years ago from Michigan

      Limiting your daytime naps is a great idea. It can be hard sometimes though.

    • Dr Pran Rangan profile image

      Dr Pran Rangan 4 years ago from Kanpur (UP), India

      I agree with you. Thanks for nice comments.

    • thumbi7 profile image

      JR Krishna 4 years ago from India

      Very useful information Sir.

      Many people find it difficult to fall asleep as they age.