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Sleep Deprivation

What is Sleep Deprivation?

Sleep deprivation occurs when we don’t get enough sleep to feel alert and rested. Although not an official sleep disorder, sleep deprivation isn’t merely a matter of mild sleepiness. Experts says it’s a widespread problem that drains our health, happiness and financial resources.

Chronically sleep-deprived people, some 20 percent of Americans, are more prone to costly diseases, accidents, and workplace absenteeism, at a steep cost to our national and global economy. The cost of drowsy driving motor vehicle accidents alone is estimated at $56 billion per year. Shift workers, healthcare workers, long-haul truck drivers, military operators, and others in jobs with demanding hours are at higher risk for sleep deprivation and the problems it causes.

Over time, chronic sleep deprivation can cause a wide range of health ailments, including:

Sleep deprivation also impairs cognitive functioning, decision-making, and reaction times, which is why sleep deprivation increases the risk of vehicle accidents. Sleep deprivation is also believed to hasten the effects of aging and reduce the skin’s ability to heal.

Because sleep deprivation impacts levels of leptin, a hormone that controls hunger, people who don’t sleep enough may crave more calories and carbohydrates. Some people complain of gastrointestinal upset, like nausea and heartburn or increased or decreased appetite, during periods of sleep deprivation.

Can You Die From Lack of Sleep?

There are no clinical studies on humans that prove sleep deprivation is fatal. However, a man in China died after going 11 days without sleep, and a number of studies on rats have shown that death results from chronic sleep deprivation. Scientists theorize that sleep is necessary for the body’s regulation of temperature, which may play a role in sleep deprivation-related deaths in lab studies.

Treatment and Prevention

The best was to address sleep deprivation is to prevent it with healthy sleep habits, what doctors call sleep hygiene.

  • Keep the bedroom dark, quiet, and cool
  • Leave work, television and mobile electronics out of the bedroom, especially at night
  • Don’t vary your bedtime or wake up time by more than one hour, even on weekends
  • Avoid large, heavy meals within three hours of bedtime
  • Avoid caffeine within eight hours of bedtime
  • Avoid alcohol in the last hour before bed

Some medications can make it harder to sleep, which can cause or worsen sleep deprivation. Talk to your doctor about medications that may interfere with sleep, including some antidepressants, stimulants, and decongestants

Finally, talk to your doctor if you believe your sleep deprivation may be the result of a sleep condition like insomnia, a circadian rhythm sleep-wake disorder, a parasomnia, or another sleep disorder.

Additional resources:

Sleep Debt
Top Sleep Myths, Busted
Your Body’s Circadian Rhythms, Explained

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