Sleep Deprivation: How It Impacts Your Body And What You Can Do About It

Are you sleep deprived or just a little tired? Let the experts explain the difference and advise you on how to get the rest your mind and body needs.

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When was the last time you had a good night’s sleep? If you can’t remember, don’t push yourself. You’re probably already feeling the effects of sleep deprivation, and your body may be doing just about all it can to stay awake and read this. We all have days like this…weeks like this…sometimes even months like this! If you’re a mom, you can count on losing as much as six months of sleep during the first 24 months of your child’s life. Yes, you read that right. Sixty percent of parents get just 3.25 hours or less sleep every night when their kids are 24 months or younger, and 10 percent of parents get a total of 2.5 hours of continuous sleep per night during their child’s first two years of life. But you don’t have to have kids to be struggling to prop your eyelids open. If you work as a home health aide, lawyer, police officer, physician, paramedic, economist, or social worker, you’re among the most sleep-deprived employees in America and aside from that, women are almost twice as likely as men to report insomnia and other symptoms of sleep deprivation. If you’re chugging down a cup of coffee and trying to keep your eyes open, you’re not alone. But you do need help! Here’s how to power through that lack of sleep and catch some ZZZs.

How much sleep do you really need?

You know how much sleep you’re managing to get a night, but do you know how much you really need to leave exhaustion behind? Just as our bodies change as we age, so does the amount of sleep we need to recharge them. The National Sleep Foundation recommends that adults age 18 to 64 get seven to nine hours of sleep every single night. Our nighttime needs drop around age 65, although not by much. Seniors are still told to get between seven and eight hours of sleep each night. Of course, that’s all easier said than done, and there aren’t many Americans who are heeding the advice of the National Sleep Foundation. Although people in rural and suburban areas tend to get better sleep than people who live in big cities, most of us fall asleep sometime after 10:30 p.m., according to data from Jawbone’s fitness trackers. And even with those late bedtimes, more than half of Americans are awake by 6:30 the following morning. If you manage to be one of the people who conks out at 10:30 p.m. and makes it all the way until 6:30 a.m., the math indicates you’re probably doing okay. But if you’re snorting at the idea that your life could shut down long enough for you to be one of the few, well, welcome to the club. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, just one out of three Americans actually gets what the doctor orders in terms of shuteye. The rest of us are running around fueled by coffee and trying desperately to get more done in less time so we can get to bed earlier each night. While we’re in good company, the bad news is that depriving ourselves of a full night’s sleep is doing a number on our bodies. It stands to reason that if sleep is part of a healthy routine, lack of sleep can affect our health, and the science backs up common sense on this one. If you get a good, full night of sleep daily, then you’re healthy and alert,” says Benjamin Smarr, PhD, Reverie sleep advisory board member and professor of neurobiology and behavior at University of California, Berkeley. “The more disrupted your sleep is over time, the more unhealthy you are likely to become. Between these extremes, there is a sliding scale of health and cognitive deficits that build up over time.” “But the long and short of it is, every part of you needs sleep—eating, digesting, playing, thinking, socializing, healing, remembering,” Smarr says. “Sleep is necessary for all this and anything else you do as a functioning human being. When you don’t get good sleep, these normal and necessary habits suffer.” That can mean simple things such as concentration and the ability to do well at whatever you do—work, workouts, parenting, enjoying a good read. On the extreme end, though, lack of sleep has been tied to an inability to process glucose, which increases your diabetes risk, as well as a heightened risk of coronary artery disease.

Are you sleep deprived?

The term sleep deprivation is bandied around a lot both by medical practitioners and those of us who get a kick out of sharing funny GIFs about coffee on social media. But what does it actually mean to be sleep deprived? Is there a number of hours of sleep you can get that cuts you out of the sleep-disordered crowd? Not exactly. From a technical perspective, deprivation is simply withholding something from someone’s possession—even if, in the case of sleep, it’s our own. From a medical perspective, sleep deprivation is not a diagnosis, nor is there an exact number of hours of sleep that doctors look for when reviewing a potential case. However, sleep deprivation is a term that doctors use, and it’s one they take seriously because of the potential for other health conditions to be associated with it. “There is not a ‘clinical’ definition per se, however we divide sleep deprivation into two categories,” explains Kimberly Fenn, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at Michigan State University. “Sleep deprivation refers to one or more nights in which an individual obtains no sleep. This is somewhat rare in the population.” “In contrast, acute sleep restriction refers to partial sleep loss that occurs across several nights,” Fenn notes. “This occurs any time an individual obtains less than seven hours of sleep per night and is quite common in society.” While being tired is an obvious sign that you might be sleep deprived, it turns out that not feeling tired is one too. “If you don’t sleep all night, your body hasn’t healed or refreshed, so your brain functions similarly to how it would when you’re legally drunk,” Smarr explains. “But in the morning, your circadian sleep drive runs out, causing your circadian clock to switch to promoting wakefulness—meaning you feel like you get a second wind. This wide awake yet unrested state is when many people have accidents because they overcompensate for what their body and mind can actually handle. In fact, far more harm is done annually from sleep deprived driving than actual drunk driving!”

What’s really going on?

Typical sleep deprivation can have a number of causes. “Typically, people become sleep deprived because of external factors (e.g., a project at work, a trauma such as a loss of a loved one, etc.),” Fenn says.   In the U.S. Navy, for example, sailors have long been held to “five and dimes,” a system by which they were limited to no more than five hours of sleep at a clip. It’s a system that’s being replaced with new sleep mandates issued by the military this year to address sleep deprivation among our troops. It’s not just extreme military practices that are being questioned. There is growing criticism of employers that hold employees to schedules that limit sleep. Doctors have long worked shifts that can go on for days (literally) during their residency and internships, grabbing catnaps in on-call rooms as a means to refuel their bodies. Truckers are known to sleep for similarly few hours, sometimes faking log books and pushing themselves with the help of caffeinated beverages (and other stimulants) to stay awake and keep driving so they can meet sometimes unreasonable deadlines. Intensive studies of the practice have likened the effects of sleep deprivation caused by these sorts of shifts to the effects of alcohol on the body, and groups such as the Institute of Medicine have called for shift reductions to improve not only the health of employees but also protect the people with whom they interact. Of course, sleep deprivation isn’t always caused by grueling hours on the job. Sometimes you’re at home, you’ve got nine hours set aside for a good night’s sleep, you’re lying in bed, and…nothing’s happening. Your body (and mind) refuse to shut down. “If an individual typically spends eight hours in bed but can only sleep for a fraction of this, then that likely indicates that s/he is suffering from some form of insomnia,” Fenn says. “Similarly, if an individual habitually sleeps for seven to eight hours but does not feel rested and suffers from excessive daytime sleepiness , then this might indicate an underlying problem with their sleep, e.g., the individual may suffer from sleep apnea, etc.” Another issue that causes sleep deprivation? Parents of young kids and caregivers of the elderly or sick can find themselves unable to grab quality sleep, not because they don’t want to sleep but because the people for whom they are caring require around-the-clock help. Caregivers may get sleep, but if it’s in short bursts of time—in between the baby’s cries or calls for help from an ailing loved one—it is often non-restorative. Scientists posit that short stints of sleep don’t allow the body to get enough rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, the sleep stage linked to forming memories and learning. “There are four stages of sleep—stage 1, stage 2, stage 3, and REM,” Fenn explains. “Stages differ dramatically in a number of ways, primarily based on neural activity.” REM sleep typically doesn’t take over until you’re at least an hour into sleeping, and your body can cycle in and out of it. But if your sleep is interrupted, REM sleep is harder to achieve, which—in turn—affects your memory and your ability to concentrate.

Break the cycle.

If your sleep deprivation can be linked specifically to a crying baby who is keeping you up or a work schedule that doesn’t allow time for sleep, you might feel like there’s no end in sight. But there’s one piece of good news that’s worth clinging to in these dark times: It will get better. “If an individual is sleep deprived due to environmental factors such as this, they are typically short term, and normal sleep patterns will resume when the environmental stress subsides,” Fenn says. In other words, when the baby starts sleeping longer through the night or your schedule changes, you will be able to get back to your old routine. But if you can’t make an adjustment on your own or can’t pinpoint the root cause of your sleeplessness, it’s important to seek medical care. A healthcare provider will likely ask that you start what’s known as a sleep diary to help get a sense of just how much you are (or aren’t) sleeping and other factors that may be affecting your sleep, such as amount of light and noise. They may hand you a sleep diary in the office, or you can download one for free from the internet. A sleep diary is filled out at home by the patient, meaning your doctor will depend on you to be up front about everything from alcohol usage and caffeine intake so they can get a clear picture of what’s going on. To help augment a patient’s self-reporting, your doctor’s office may send you home with a wearable device too, says Yunpeng Wu, MD, medical director of sleep services at O’Bleness Hospital in Athens, Ohio. “We have medical devices that can fit on your wrist, much like a Fitbit or a watch, but different,” Wu says. “Wear [it] for a week or two, we can download the data and we can see how the patient sleeps and make recommendations. From that data, we can develop a plan with the patient.” A doctor may also schedule a sleep study, Wu says, wherein you go to the hospital or a sleep center at night, and healthcare providers actually observe your entire routine, monitoring what’s going on with your heart rate, breathing, and more. Medical technicians will look for signs of conditions that could be causing your sleep deprivation. Sleep apnea, for example, is a sleep disorder that causes you to stop breathing for short periods while you’re sleeping. It can cause a person to wake up feeling like they didn’t get much sleep, sending them to the doctor with complaints of daytime fatigue and more. Your doctor’s recommendations (and any prescriptions) will be based on what they determine is causing your sleep deprivation. “That doesn’t always mean going right to medication,” Wu says. “There are cognitive behavior therapy options, relaxation skills.” “A lot of times, patients can do this by themselves, without needing professional help,” he adds. “There are routines you can get yourself into.” A good routine that gets the doctor’s stamp of approval?

  • Avoid exercise three to five hours before bedtime.
  • Do not eat too closely to your bedtime.
  • Try getting to sleep by 11 p.m. and waking up by 6 or 7 a.m. every day (yes—even on the weekends!)
  • Eat a balanced diet, avoiding caffeine consumption after noon.
  • Make sure you pull yourself away from anything that stimulates you (such as a TV show or book) in time to wind down.
Jeanne Sager
Jeanne Sager is a writer and photographer from upstate New York. She has strung words together for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, and more.