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Sleep deprivation – a major problem?

Exhausted man

At some point in our lives, most of us will suffer from some form of sleep disorder. This can include difficulty in getting to sleep, difficulty staying asleep long enough or waking too early. In most cases, although people focus on the problems and complain about how little sleep they are getting, they are actually getting more quality sleep than they realise. What’s more, for most of us, mild sleep deprivation is a temporary condition and will cause us no major problems, beyond feeling tired and grumpy.


Sleep deprivation problems occur when people do not get sufficient sleep to complete the natural sleep cycles – including REM or dream sleep – over a prolonged period of time. This can cause a range of mental and physical problems, and can have long term health implications.


This article on sleep deprivation is by Kathryn Senior, a freelance journalist who writes health, medical, biological, and pharmaceutical articles for national and international journals, newsletters and web sites.  


Causes of sleep deprivation

The causes of sleep deprivation are many and varied:

  • Most people experience sleep deprivation during times of emotional stress, such as financial problems, relationship issues and other worries. Most parents also recall suffering severe lack of sleep following the birth of their baby, as their nightly feeds disrupt the natural sleep patterns.

  • Sleep deprivation can also be caused by physical factors, including eating too late in the evening, excessive drinking and the consumption of stimulants such as caffeine and chocolate. Lack of exercise may leave you not feeling tired, or, conversely, going to bed too soon after exercise may mean your body is too awake to sleep.

  • Age is also a factor. The older you get, the more likely you are to suffer problems sleeping as well as you used to. More than half of pensioners over 65 experience some form of sleeping disorder.

  • Women are more likely to suffer sleep deprivation than men, as hormonal changes during menstruation and menopause disrupt the normal sleep patterns.

  • Medication, underlying health problems, such as asthma, and mental health issues, such as post traumatic stress disorder, can all contribute to sleep problems.


If you are experiencing problems with sleep deprivation and are unsure of the cause, your GP will ask you to keep a sleep diary for a few weeks. This will enable you to identify the relationship between your lifestyle, eating and drinking, with the quality of sleep that follows.

Mental effects of sleep deprivation

If you are suffering from sleep deprivation, your mind will not function as effectively and your performance will suffer across a wide range of mental tasks. Short term memory will be reduced, as will your ability to perform cognitive reasoning tasks, especially those that require lateral thinking to solve them. In fact, decision making and reaction times can become so impaired, that studies have shown that people deprived of sleep for as little as 19 hours, can perform as badly as someone who is over the legal drink drive limit.


If sleep deprivation continues for an extended period, it can lead to more serious mental health problems including depression, emotional instability and anxiety.


Physical effects of sleep deprivation

The physical effects of mild sleep deprivation will amount to little more than muscular aches, yawning and a general feeling of lethargy. As the sleep deprivation increases, you may experience shaking or tremors, dizziness and slurred speech. If it continues for a prolonged period of time, it can cause hypertension (high blood pressure) as well as increasing the risks of diabetes and heart disease.


Some research suggests there is a link between sleep deprivation and obesity, however the direction of the causal link is unclear, and it may be the discomfort of obesity that causes sleep deprivation, not the other way around.

Extreme sleep deprivation

One of the major dangers of extreme sleep deprivation is micro-sleeps. The human brain cannot survive without sleep, so if you are deprived of sleep entirely, you will suffer short blackouts of between 10 and 60 seconds, in which the brain simply shuts down. Most worryingly, you may not be aware that this is occurring and could easily put yourself in great danger if driving or operating machinery in this state.


Extended sleep deprivation will eventually lead to psychotic behaviour, as your mind struggles to deal with distorted perceptions of the world and can no longer act appropriately. It is not directly fatal, as some TV programs have suggested, but it is possible to die indirectly as a result of too little sleep if you can’t stake awake when driving.


Overcoming sleep deprivation

Clearly, the occasional sleep deprivation experienced by most people is not a major problem. A simple analysis of your health, lifestyle and diet will often be enough to restore your normal sleep routines. Improving your sleeping habits and environment, known as sleep hygiene, will greatly improve your chances of a refreshing night’s sleep.


However, if your sleep deprivation continues, it can quickly become a major problem, and it is vital that you seek professional help before it begins to have a serious affect on your relationships, work performance and mental and physical health.


Kathryn Senior

Profile of the author

Dr Kathryn Senior is an acclaimed medical journalist who has written over 500 feature articles for leading international journals within The Lancet group. As Senior Writer at Freelance Copy she produces high quality scientific and medical content for websites and printed publications for companies and organisations in the health, medical and pharmaceutical sectors.


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