Sleep Deprivation

What is sleep deprivation?

Sleep deprivation means you’re not getting enough sleep. For most adults, the amount of sleep needed for best health is 7 to 8 hours each night.

When you get less sleep than that, as many people do, it can eventually lead to many health problems. These can include forgetfulness, weight gain, being less able to fight off infections, mood swings, and depression.

What causes sleep deprivation?

Sleep deprivation is not a specific disease. It's usually the result of other illnesses or from life circumstances.

Sleep deprivation is becoming more common. Many people try to adjust their schedule to get as much done as possible, and sleep is sacrificed.

Sleep deprivation also becomes a greater problem as people grow older. Older adults probably need as much sleep as younger adults, but they typically sleep more lightly. They also sleep for shorter time spans than younger people. Half of all people older than 65 have frequent sleeping problems.

Sleep deprivation can occur for a number of reasons:

  • Sleep disorder. These include insomnia, sleep apnea, narcolepsy, and restless legs syndrome.

  • Aging. People older than 65 may have trouble sleeping because of aging, medicine they’re taking, or health problems they’re having.

  • Illness. Sleep deprivation is common with depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, chronic pain syndrome, cancer, stroke, and Alzheimer disease.

  • Other factors. Many people have occasional sleep deprivation for other reasons. These include stress, environmental issues, a change in schedule, or a new baby disrupting their sleep schedule.

What are the symptoms of sleep deprivation?

At first, sleep deprivation may cause minor symptoms. But over time, these symptoms can become more serious.

Early sleep deprivation symptoms may include:

  • Daytime drowsiness

  • Inability to concentrate

  • Memory problems

  • Less physical strength

  • Less ability to fight off infections

Sleep deprivation problems over time may include:

  • Increased risk for depression and mental illness

  • Increased risk for stroke and asthma attack

  • Increased risk for potentially life-threatening problems. These include car accidents, and untreated sleep disorders such as insomnia, sleep apnea, and narcolepsy.

  • Hallucinations

  • Severe mood swings

How is sleep deprivation diagnosed?

Sleep specialists say that one of the telltale signs of sleep deprivation is feeling drowsy during the day. In fact, even if a task is boring, you should be able to stay alert during it if you are not sleep-deprived. If you often fall asleep within 5 minutes of lying down, then you likely have severe sleep deprivation. People with sleep deprivation also have “microsleeps.” These are brief periods of sleep during waking time. In many cases, sleep-deprived people may not even be aware that they are having these microsleeps.

If you have any of these warning signs listed above, see your healthcare provider or ask for a referral to a sleep specialist. Your healthcare provider will ask you detailed questions to get a better sense of the nature of your sleeping problems.

In some cases, if your healthcare provider thinks you have a more serious and possibly life-threatening sleep disorder such sleep apnea, then the sleep specialist may do a test called a sleep study (polysomnography). This test monitors your breathing, heart rate, and other vital signs during an entire night of sleep. It gives the sleep specialist useful information to help diagnose and treat your underlying disorder.

Your healthcare provider may consider a test called actigraphy to measure how much sleep you get at home. Actigraphy uses a device that you wear at night to measure body movements. If your body isn't moving, the device knows you are asleep. A simpler method is to have a person keep a diary of what time they go to bed and wake up.

How is sleep deprivation treated?

Treatments for sleep deprivation vary based on the cause and how severe it is. In some cases, your healthcare provider may want you to try self-care methods before turning to medicine. Your provider may prescribe sleeping pills. But keep in mind that they tend to work less well after a few weeks. They can actually disrupt your sleep.

Older adults must be especially careful about using sleeping pills They are likely to be more sensitive to the medicine's effects than younger adults. The medicine will also stay in the person's system longer, putting them at risk for morning confusion and drowsiness. Older adults who use sleeping pills have almost double the risk of falls and hip fractures. The use of multiple medicines by seniors greatly increases the risks of adverse medicine interactions. There is broad agreement among geriatric specialists that benzodiazepines should not be used to treat insomnia in older adults. All other strategies should be tried before sleeping pills are prescribed to older adults.

Sometime insomnia is caused by an adjustment in your body clock. This is called a circadian rhythm disorder. For this, your healthcare provider may have you try light therapy. It can help your body’s internal clock readjust and allow you to sleep more restfully.

If you are diagnosed with sleep apnea, your healthcare provider may prescribe a special breathing machine to use while you sleep. It's called CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure). This machine gives you a continuous flow of air through a mask. This will help keep your airway open while you sleep.

Can sleep deprivation be prevented?

If your sleep deprivation is mild, these simple strategies may help you to get a better night’s sleep:

  • Exercise at least 20 to 30 minutes each day, at least 5 to 6 hours before going to bed. This will make you more likely to fall asleep later in the day.

  • Don't use substances that contain caffeine, nicotine, or alcohol. Any of these can disrupt your regular sleep patterns. Quitting smoking is always a good idea.

How to manage sleep deprivation

Creating a relaxing bedtime routine often helps conquer sleep deprivation and give you a good night’s sleep. This can include taking a warm bath, reading, or meditating. Let your mind drift peacefully to sleep. But don't eat a large meal just before bed. It can make it hard to sleep.

Another step that may help you to get a good night’s sleep is sticking to a consistent schedule. This means that you go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. If possible, waking up with the sun is a good way to reset your body’s clock more naturally.

Also keep your bedroom at a reasonable temperature. A bedroom that is too hot or too cold can disrupt sleep.

Try not to use devices like a cellphone or tablet before bed. The light from these devices can make it harder to fall asleep. If you’re having trouble sleeping, try doing something else like reading a book for a few minutes. The anxiety of not being able to fall asleep can actually make sleep deprivation worse for some people.

Finally, see a healthcare provider if your problems with sleep deprivation continue. Don’t let sleep problems linger.

Key points about sleep deprivation

  • Sleep deprivation is not a specific disease. It's usually the result of other illnesses or life circumstances.

  • Sleep deprivation can become a greater problem as people grow older.

  • The telltale sign of sleep deprivation is feeling drowsy during the day.

  • Treatments for sleep deprivation vary based on how severe it is.

  • Creating a relaxing bedtime routine and turning off electronic devices often helps to conquer sleep deprivation and get a good night’s sleep.

  • The anxiety of not being able to fall asleep can actually make sleep deprivation worse for some people.

Next steps

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your healthcare provider:

  • Know the reason for your visit and what you want to happen.

  • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.

  • Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your provider tells you.

  • At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis, and any new medicines, treatments, or tests. Also write down any new instructions your provider gives you.

  • Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed and how it will help you. Also know what the side effects are.

  • Ask if your condition can be treated in other ways.

  • Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.

  • Know what to expect if you do not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.

  • If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.

  • Know how you can contact your provider if you have questions.

Online Medical Reviewer: Andrew D Schriber MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Marianne Fraser MSN RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Raymond Kent Turley BSN MSN RN
Date Last Reviewed: 8/1/2023
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