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Sleep deprivation: the facts

Perhaps you stayed up working on a deadline longer than you planned, binge-watched a new series on Netflix, or couldn’t stop turning the pages of that new suspense novel everyone is raving about.

It happens. But now you’re stuck with a sleep deficit that’s making you feel sluggish and fuzzy-brained.

Or maybe your problem is more serious and you’re suffering from insomnia or trying to adapt to a big life change and just not getting enough shut-eye.

What can you do? The first step is to acknowledge the problem. While experts say you can “pay off sleep debt” in the short term (roughly 48 hours), it’s something that can do major damage to your health over the longer term if left unaddressed.

The effects of sleep deprivation

“Individuals have genetic differences in how well they tolerate sleep loss, and those who are most affected are going to need longer recovery times,” says Ellen Wermter, a family nurse practitioner with Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Medicine.  “In general, women do not rebound from sleep loss as readily as men do. It’s genetic. Cognitive performance is probably the most obvious deficit from lost sleep, but it also greatly impacts the endocrine system and metabolism.”

In fact, she explains, short sleep duration affects your ability to use glucose and can give you blood sugar levels similar to those of someone with diabetes. You have more stress hormones and inflammatory markers that occur with the activation of your autonomic nervous system – a system that’s great in an emergency, but not good when activated for longer periods. Those stress hormones cause hyper-arousal, which can cause lighter sleep and perpetuate a sleep-deprivation cycle.

If you are dealing with short-term sleep debt (after a weekend of staying up late, for example), try to catch up by napping. However, sleep deficits can’t be erased in the long-term.

Nicole Porter, a Wisconsin-based, bio-psychologist and fatigue expert, says that unfortunately you can’t just recover from sleep loss by sleeping in when you get the chance. “The majority of us (more than half) exhibit independent signs of sleep deprivation already,” she says. “Twenty-five percent have serious fatigue. And it’s affecting our work. Sleeping in on Sunday, trying to make up for burning the candle at both ends is exactly how we end up with sleep deprivation and chronic fatigue.”

She says that chronic fatigue leads to a host of health problems, such as hypertension, obesity, ulcers, cognitive difficulties, and immune deficiencies that leave us open to infection, disease and cancer. It also causes anxiety and depression.

“The problem with a sleep deficit is you can’t just catch up on sleep, or make it up any other time,” says Jamie Logie, a certified health and wellness specialist, nutritionist, personal trainer and author of Taking Back Your Health. “Once you’ve neglected it for that night, you have to deal with it. It can lead to increased stress hormone levels, biological clock issues, and can even affect your body’s ability to handle sugar by making you more insulin resistant.”

He explains that not sleeping puts stress on the body, which interprets this as trauma. “Our body doesn’t know exactly why we’re staying up. All it knows is something traumatic must be happening in order to prevent us from resting and recovering. This keeps those stress hormones elevated and over time this chronic sleep deprivation and stress can lead to a lot of harmful conditions in the body.”

What counts as sleep deprivation?

Often, people think of sleep deprivation as something that takes a long time to set in, but effects can occur quickly and they are surprisingly similar to what alcohol does to your body. New research indicates that 17 to 19 hours without sleep is the equivalent (or worse) than having a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) level of 0.05%. After a few more hours without sleep, and performance reached levels equivalent to a BAC of 0.1 percent.

“If you sleep 8 hours out of 24, you should be awake for 16 hours,” says Porter. “At 17 to 19 hours awake, you exhibit signs of sleep deprivation. That’s one to three hours after bedtime! It’s like you’ve had a few beers.”

In essence, not getting enough sleep is like you’re driving drunk.

Combating sleep deprivation

To combat sleep deprivation, get back to basics: focus on good sleep hygiene, a healthy diet, managing stress, and a balance of exercise and relaxation.

“You’ll just need to start creating a proper sleep pattern and follow it,” Logie says. “That starts with having a wind-down routine, as this is the best way to get in a rhythm and it allows your body to know sleep is coming.”

Keep your room cool. Body temperature naturally lowers when we sleep. Starting the night in a cooler state will help you get you to sleep quicker and promote deeper sleep.

A dark room will also help you sleep better. Darkness helps to stimulate melatonin, which is important for deep restful sleep. Keep your bed room as dark as possible by using blackout curtains or wearing an eye mask.

Avoid electronics at least 1 to 2 hours before bed. Blue light from electronics can prevent melatonin from being released, which will make it harder to fall asleep or stay asleep.

Skip caffeine and alcohol. Alcohol may put you to sleep, but it’s bad for deep restorative sleep. Caffeine has a reputation for keeping you up, but many people don’t know that it also stays in the bloodstream much longer than the two or more hours when you feel the noticeable effects. It can linger for 3 to 7 hours. Experiment to find what’s the best cut-off time of day to end caffeine consumption. Experts suggest 2pm is a good rule of thumb.

If you are following good sleep practices and still find yourself unable to sleep, consider speaking to a doctor who can assist you with addressing your insomnia.

For fun sleep facts and expert sleep advice, why not visit our Sleep Blog?