One of the hardest conditions to deal with is sleep deprivation. That’s because you’re simply not yourself anymore. You lack the energy to think, feel and do the things you normally would.
Sleep deprivation happens when you have a severe lack of sleep. And unfortunately, as a society, we’re getting less and less sleep. In 1942, the average amount of sleep people got was 8 hours a night. Today? The average is 6.8 hours.
That’s not the amount of sleep that we should get a night. No wonder more and more people are wandering around like zombies.
If you’re feeling the struggle of sleep deprivation, don’t worry. We’ve put together the ultimate guide to its causes, symptoms and – most importantly – how to deal with sleep deprivation. Read on to discover how you can start to feel normal again.
What causes sleep deprivation?
Like with any sleep condition, there’s not always a straight forward explanation about what causes it.
Sleep deprivation is caused by a lack of sleep, which means there are several things that can cause it. It doesn’t have to be something that keeps you awake for hours on end either. Waking up a lot during the night can be just as big as a disturbance as staying up all night. This is because not all sleep is equal.
As we’ve covered before, your body goes through 5 stages of the sleep cycle during the night. The more times you wake up, the less time you’ll spend in the deep sleep cycle, denying your body a chance to rest and recover.
Common causes of sleep deprivation include:
- A newborn baby
According to the National Sleep Foundation, 76% of parents have frequent sleep problems. This isn’t anything to do with their parenting style or whether or not they followed certain parenting books or not.
Babies just sleep differently to us. Generally, they need more sleep than us to continue their development and process everything they’ve learned. They also spend more time in deep sleep than we do – in shorter cycles. Instead of taking 90 minutes to go through a complete cycle, babies take 50 minutes. What’s more, they tend to sleep in shorter batches of three or four hours, which is completely out of sync with your pattern.
Sleeping like a baby doesn’t seem quite as attractive now.
Insomnia is a common sleep condition that makes it hard for people to fall or stay asleep. And when I say common, I mean common. In May 2019, the NHS spent £3,289,079 on prescriptions for medications used to treat insomnia.
That’s an average cost of £39.5 million a year. This is the UK alone – insomnia is a worldwide condition that affects a big percentage of the population. There are many different ways to treat and help cope with insomnia, including these simple tips for a better night’s sleep.
Some medications can really interfere with your sleep.
Common mediations that can impact sleep include antidepressants, steroids, and even common cold relief. If you’ve just started taking a new medication, this might be the cause of your sleep problems. If possible, you may want to alter your dosage to get a better night’s sleep.
When in doubt, speak to your GP.
Ever laid there for hours worrying about something or over analysing a decision you need to make? Oh yeah, that old chestnut.
If you’re experiencing high levels of stress, you will find it more difficult to fall and stay asleep.
In short: anything that keeps you awake is the cause of your sleep deprivation. It could be something common and listed above, or something completely different. Hell, it could even be that you’re sick of hearing that Santa knows when you’re asleep so you’re intentionally keeping yourself up in rebellion.
It doesn’t matter what it is. What matters is that you identify the cause and work out how you can help deal with it to give yourself more sleep during the night.
What are the effects of sleep deprivation?
Lucky for you, there are many benefits to sleep deprivation! Actually, no. That was a lie.
Sleep deprivation comes with a lot of negative effects because this is a state where you are literally not rested enough to function.
- Feeling tired, groggy or irritable.
- Increased levels of stress.
- Feeling more emotional and having stronger reactions to events.
- Having problems communicating with others.
- Finding it hard to concentrate, even on simple tasks.
- Altered appetite, eating less or more than normal.
- Memory problems, making you more forgetful than normal.
- Headaches or light-headedness.
- Decreased hand-eye coordination, making you more clumsy and accident-prone.
- Reduced physical strength or aching muscles.
And boy, that’s just the start.
The less sleep you get, the worse you’ll feel. In extreme cases, you may also start to hallucinate and carry out a simple task by yourself.
In the long-term, sleep deprivation can also have a lasting impact on your health. This includes a lower immune system, making you more suspectable to illnesses and disease.
It can also lead to a higher risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, cancer, and heart disease.
This may seem extreme, but you have got to remember that sleep is the essential thing that humans need to rest and recover every night. Without it, you haven’t got a chance to keep yourself in top form.
Can you die from a lack of sleep?
It’s entirely possible that you can die from a lack of sleep. But before you hit that panic button, let me explain the facts.
No human has been known to die from a lack of sleep.
Generally, the human body will force you into a state of sleep if you go too long without it. It’s like an automatic shut-down procedure built to protect us from this very thing. Currently, the longest a human has gone without sleep is 11 days.
How to overcome sleep deprivation
Looking for answers to how you can function on no sleep? Great! Let’s dive into the sleep deprivation coping strategies that you can start using right away to feel more human.
1. Accept that you aren’t at your best
You’re not running at full capacity when you’re sleep-deprived. The first step to coping with it is to accept that you won’t be able to function as normal.
Even the most simple tasks can seem like mountains to climb when you’re running on empty. They take so much more concentration to complete and quite frankly, even the mere thought of it is exhausting.
Take a deep breath. Accept that you cannot get everything done and learn to let some jobs go. Then, slow down and try to focus. If you only get 1 thing done on your to-do list, that’s good enough.
2. Try to catch up on your sleep
Yeah, I know. If you’re suffering from sleep deprivation, telling someone to go to sleep seems like a cop-out answer. But there’s a little bit more to it than simply going to sleep.
When you don’t get enough sleep, you go into something called sleep debt. To make yourself feel more normal, you need to pay back this debt.
If you’ve missed 10 hours or under of sleep, you’re in short-term sleep debt. This can be retrieved over a week by allowing yourself to have a 3-4 hour lay in on the weekend and giving yourself an extra hour at night until your debt is paid.
If you’ve been short on sleep for decades, your sleep debt isn’t something that’s easily repaid.
But it’s worth trying to clear your schedule for a while to try and catch up on some much-needed rest. To do this, turn off your alarms and let yourself sleep as long as possible for a few days. After a while, you’ll slowly settle back into a normal sleep routine and feel more like yourself.
3. Avoid napping
This may seem like it counters tip 2, but it doesn’t. Catching up on sleep at night is a good thing if you’re sleep-deprived.
But napping during the day only makes it harder for you to sleep at night. This is because it interferes with your sleep drive, which tells your body how much sleep it needs. Think of it like being hungry and having a snack. It makes you less hungry, but when it comes to mealtime you’re no longer interested.
If you absolutely must nap, try and do it in the morning for no more than 20 minutes.
4. Optimise your sleep environment
If you want to get the best sleep at night, you need to make sure you have an environment set up for it.
This means making sure that your bedroom is set up for sleeping. That you’ve got the right mattress for your bed and that you keep it clean and distraction-free. The last thing you need to be doing is staying up for hours watching TV in your bed when you could be catching up on your Zzzz’s.
5. Get some exercise
If you’re tired, the last thing you want to do is hit the gym. But engaging in some light exercise will be just the thing you need to make you feel more awake and alert during the day.
This could be anything from going on a short walk or getting up and trying a few star jumps. You don’t need any specialist equipment, so there’s no excuse for not getting up and moving.
An added bonus of exercise is that will also help improve your sleep. In fact, a study of people with chronic insomnia showed that exercise helped them fall asleep more quickly and gave them a longer, better quality night’s sleep.
6. Time for some fresh air
Natural light is an essential part of your sleep routine. It helps keep your circadian rhythm in check, helping you produce melatonin at the right times to send you to sleep.
The more natural light you get, the better in tune your circadian rhythm will be. If you want to give it a boost, we recommend watching the sunrise and sunset to really give your system a restart.
An extra perk of going outside is that the fresh air will also make you feel more alert and less tired, helping you cope with sleep deprivation a little better.
7. Avoid a sugary diet
If you’re tired, you don’t want to cook. You want something to eat, here and now that will give you the energy to carry on.
Because your body craves a quick release of energy, you might find that you crave sugary foods and treats. But don’t reach for that bar of chocolate. You might feel great for the first 5 minutes, but you’re going to give yourself a bigger crash.
That’s because when you’re sleep-deprived, your body is slower to respond to changes to your blood sugar methods. The result is that you end up having a blood sugar dip, making you feel more tired and wanting even more sugar to overcompensate.
Instead of having a sleep crash, go for foods like nuts, bananas, and fresh fruit. You’ll feel much better for it.
8. Cut back on the caffeine and alcohol
To improve your sleep at night, you need to cut back on caffeine and alcohol, particularly in the evening.
Although caffeine might seem like a great way to cope with sleep deprivation, you’re actually making it harder for your body to cope in the long-run. That’s because caffeine doesn’t make you more awake. It just blocks a chemical called adenosine from working, so you don’t feel tired anymore.
You still need just as much sleep as before. Your body just struggles to sleep because it’s missing adenosine.
Alcohol also makes it harder for you to sleep by decreasing your melatonin levels.
9. See your GP
If you’re still struggling, it’s time to see your GP. They will be able to talk through the root of what’s causing you problems and offer more guided help or medications to help you get through.
How to deal with sleep deprivation: a summary
Sleep deprivation is caused by a lack of sleep. No matter what is causing you to miss these nights, ultimately the best way to deal with it is to catch up on the sleep that you’re missing.
And yeah, this is easier said than done.
But following the above tips, you should be on your way to leaving your zombified sleep-deprived ways behind and act more like yourself again.