Not getting enough sleep is a common problem for many people in today’s busy world, but few are aware of the associated risks, some of which are potentially very serious.
With enough lost sleep, you’re likely to start exhibiting signs of sleep deprivation. Individual experiences will depend on many factors, like the severity of deprivation, length of time it goes on for and personal medical history.
Whatever the combination of factors though, most people will be negatively impacted in multiple ways. In this article I’ll be looking at some of the more significant effects, as well as signs to keep an eye out for in your day to day functioning.
The short term effects, which are usually noticeable after a single night, can fortunately be alleviated quickly by catching up on sleep.
And whilst the long term effects take more nights of lost sleep to develop, do require more time to recover from – if recovery is possible at all.
Let’s take a look at the short term effects first, and then the more worrying long term effects.
Short term effects of sleep deprivation
1. Increased anxiety
There are a number of different ways that sleep deprivation can lead to higher anxiety. For starters, dealing with everyday life when you haven’t slept enough can be trying for most people, leaving their nerves somewhat frayed.
Furthermore, Evidence suggests that people have less of a tolerance for mild stressors when sleep deprived. So things that might normally just annoy you may instead become a source of anxiety.
2. Memory impairment
Even after decades of intensive research, no one can say for sure why we sleep. One of the more prominent theories though is that sleep allows you to integrate all of your experiences from the day into long-term memory.
There’s no shortage of research to support this idea, as sleep loss has been associated with impairments in both short and long-term memory.
Even though it still can’t be said for certain that memory consolidation is the key reason for sleep, it does seem clear that if you don’t get enough sleep, your memory can suffer.
3. Other cognitive impairments
Cognitive processes are brain activities related to thinking and sensing/experiencing. Basically, everything except emotions and the execution of actions.
Memory counts as such a process for example, but sleep deprivation has a negative impact on most others as well. Attention is especially impaired by sleep loss, making it very difficult to learn new tasks while in a sleep deprived state.
Of course, any other activity that requires attention will also be worsened – which means a lot of daily human behavior will be affected.
In one research study, performances on sustained attention tasks involving movement were found to worsen by about 50% after a single night of sleep deprivation.
There’s some evidence to suggest that extended bouts of sleep deprivation (over 100 hours lost) can cause auditory hallucinations in otherwise healthy individuals. Fortunately, this is quite rare though.
Most of the concern has been for people who are already at risk for psychotic episodes, like those diagnosed with schizophrenia and similar disorders.
In these populations, sleep deprivation presents a huge risk for triggering psychotic events, which can include hallucinations, delusions and overall disordered thinking.
However, there are some cases where healthy individuals have started hallucinating during extremely long sleep deprivation experiments.
5. Behavioral problems in children
Everybody knows that kids can be cranky and difficult to deal with when they’re sleepy. But like sleep deprivation in general, the issue is far more serious than is generally acknowledged by the public.
The presence of any other effect covered in this article may be enough to cause problematic behaviors in kids. And even more issues can arise if sleep deprivation isn’t correctly identified as the root cause of their difficult behavior.
A misdiagnosis could direct attention away from sleep deprivation, while also introducing potentially harmful treatments in the form of unnecessary medications.
So if you have children of your own, the next time they exhibit behavior that could come about due to sleep deprivation – such as low mood, anxiety or poor attention for example, it’s worth asking yourself if sleep could be the root of the problem.
Long term effects of sleep deprivation
1. Increased risk of heart attack or stroke
Sleep deprivation raises the risk of potentially fatal cardiovascular events. There’s no consensus about the exact ways that sleep loss translates to heart and blood problems, but several mechanisms appear to be at work.
According to French and Swiss researchers, sleep deprivation may cause dysfunction in parts of the brain that regulate the heart and circulatory system.
Furthermore, British researchers suggest it could be linked to inflammation, possibly causing a response in vessels that raises blood pressure and increases the odds of developing a clot.
2. Weight gain
People are more likely to become obese if they suffer from insufficient sleep. A 2013 research study determined that the weight gain may be specifically fueled by changes in eating behaviors.
In the research experiment, people with sleep deprivation spent about 5% more energy than those without – because they were awake for longer and therefore needed more energy. However, they also tended to eat more to sustain the increased activity.
The authors suggested that this adaptation causes more energy to be stored in the form of gained weight. Their results agreed, as participants gained between 1 and 2 lbs on average after five days of insufficient sleep.
Furthermore, other research has shown that when people don’t sleep well, the next day they often choose food with a higher carbohydrate and sugar content.
I know myself that if I’m especially tired in the afternoon, my brain somehow always finds coffee and cake more appealing that a juice or healthy snack!
3. Development of mood disorders
The link between sleep deprivation and mood is a tricky one to pin down; there can be vastly different effects on mood depending on the person and the circumstances.
Small doses of controlled deprivation have actually been found to improve mood in some people with depression or bipolar disorder. Don’t try this at home though without first consulting a professional.
For most people, sleep loss will result in poor moods that gradually worsen over time. Eventually, the symptoms may even become serious enough to warrant a mood disorder diagnosis.
4. Reduced quality of life
The ways that sleep deprivation may negatively impact quality of life are practically countless. If it leads to psychological symptoms such as stress, anxiety or depression, this can then impair your ability to enjoy day to day life.
And then as the physical effects become more prominent, declines in overall medical health may introduce another source of persistent despair.
Sleep deprivation also has more immediate effects that can reduce quality of life, such as increasing one’s susceptibility to pain.
5. Death or disability linked with other effects
There’s no scientific evidence to suggest that humans have died from sleep deprivation alone, though lab animals haven’t been so lucky.
Humans appear to have a safety mechanism that places you into short states of altered consciousness known as micro-sleeps – whether you want it to happen or not. At the point that you begin experiencing periods of micro-sleep, it’s unlikely that you’d still have the mental capacity to even notice.
Some people have been experimentally recorded as staying awake for 8 to 11 days, but these numbers didn’t account for micro-sleep periods. It could be that even though they felt like they were fully awake throughout, their brain was taking charge in the background with some indetectable micro-sleeps
Still, as is evidenced from the other listed effects, sleep loss can certainly put people in a position where the mental or physical consequences can become severe enough that they lead to disability – or worse.
Among the most serious risks are the potential development of psychiatric symptoms, heart conditions and getting into accidents when operating heavy machinery or driving.
So although sleep deprivation itself doesn’t appear to directly cause death, some of the long term effects or risk of accidents could unfortunately lead to death after all.
The impact of sleep deprivation on people is complex. Even the relatively straightforward effects can vary in duration, intensity and reduction in quality of life based on variables like age or gender.
Regardless, it’s clear that sleep loss is almost universally harmful to well-being and should be avoided if at all possible.
It’s understandable that in the modern day and age, most people fight a daily battle with their endless to-do list. Add to that the stresses and strains of daily life, and sleep isn’t always the easiest thing to keep on top of.
So it may be a case of do as best you can to ensure you get a good night’s sleep whenever possible. And if you spot yourself suffering from the initial effects of sleep deprivation, try to catch up on your sleep before you end up in the more worrying territory of the long term effects.