Lack of sleep: causes, effects and remedies
When we talk about a lack of sleep, we’re saying that the hours of actual sleep we enjoy are not enough to cover the body’s needs. It is important to point out right from the start that the hours of sleep we need differ from person to person. Working out the right amount of sleep that every individual needs is a case of trial and error throughout our lives, since this is highly tailored to our personal daily routines.
If your body becomes used to getting many hours of rest, then sleeping for just a few hours one night will be a real shock to the body, with resulting negative effects on your overall health and wellbeing. This demonstrates how our personal lifestyle affects how much sleep our body needs. Another factor boils down to genetics: some of us are genetically predisposed to sleep for more or less time compared to others, or to fall sleep at a certain time.
People in Asia may have the shortest sleep duration, when compared with people living in Europe and Oceania. Japan and South Korea have a shortest duration of sleep, and they ranked first and second in the most sleep deprived countries surveyed. The Philippines and India are not far behind with average sleep durations of 6:37 hours and 6:47 hours, respectively. The recommended minimum amount of sleep is 7 hours, as per the National Sleep Foundation.
A prolonged lack of sleep can cause people to suffer from serious ailments. This is why we want to shine a light on this topic, explain what it is about, learn together about the symptoms and offer some friendly advice, though please remember that it is always worth consulting a specialist for personalized treatment.
Sleep deprivation and interesting tidbits
Total sleep deprivation has a devastating effect on the body, to the extent it has been used historically as a torture method, for example in the 1970s, when it was used as one of the British government’s five interrogation techniques. The European Court of Human Rights ruled that this practice “amounted to a practice of inhuman and degrading treatment” that violated the European Convention on Human Rights.
Since 1963, Randy Gardner has held the world record for the longest amount of time a human has gone without sleep, managing to stay awake for an eye-watering 11 consecutive days.
Today, he can still remember the very negative consequences he felt during this dangerous experience: the confusion, the difficulty focusing on objects, lapses in memory and hallucinations. Ever since then, he still occasionally suffers from confusion and disorientation, though no cerebral anomalies have ever been found.
The symptoms of a lack of sleep
You don’t need to calculate the hours you slept to know that you didn’t sleep enough - the effects of a lack of sleep are very noticeable the next day. If the lack of sleep continues over a prolonged period of time, it can even have serious effects on health that may be long-lasting or even irreversible.
Unfortunately, we’re not just talking about dark circles in the morning that you can hide behind sunglasses… we’re talking about both mental and physical symptoms that are less immediately noticeable by the people around you, but that you can definitely see the signs of if you yourself have suffered from troubled sleep.
- We can differentiate the symptoms of a bad sleep routine as follows: Among the immediate, short-lived and easily reversible symptoms of a short-term lack of sleep, we find:
- Daytime drowsiness: the body compensates for the lack of sleep by showing signs of the need for rest throughout the day.
- Inattentiveness: this can slow down your reflexes, which can make everyday activities that may require a rapid response by the brain to sudden events very dangerous, such as driving, jobs that require quick problem solving like being a surgeon, or even being a parent!
- Difficulty concentrating: people suffering from a lack of sleep tend to get more distracted, which leads to making more mistakes.
- Lapses in memory: the brain uses sleep to reorganize the information we take in during the day and to make it easier to remember it all. A lack of sleep can therefore make it more difficult to process and recover memories. Calling all students once again: perhaps it is time to take a coffee break?
- Mood swings: a lack of sleep can lead to more aggressive reactions, as it hinders the sense of empathy towards others and increases frustration.
- The long-term effects of a prolonged lack of sleep are more difficult to decipher and may well require medical attention. These include effects on:
- the immune system: a lack of sleep has been shown to affect the natural balance of the immune system; people who suffer from sleep deprivation over a prolonged period of time tend to have an altered immune response.
- weight: long-term sleep deprivation can affect the feeling of hunger, the capacity to exercise and the body’s ability to maintain its core internal temperature. This leads sleep disorders of this kind to be commonly associated with obesity.
- the cardiovascular system: sleep is an essential part of the process for helping your body repair itself. Taking this away from the body can have negative consequences on the cardiovascular system. Not the best news, then, for our heart.
- hormone levels: a lack of sleep can hinder the production of some hormones and increase the production of others that may be responsible for making you feel stressed.
- cognitive functions: the main effects of not getting enough hours of sleep can be seen in the areas of the brain responsible for logical reasoning and emotional control.
What are the potential causes of a prolonged lack of sleep?
We have taken a look at the disastrous effects of sleep deprivation, but the big question is: how come however hard we try, we sometimes just can’t fall asleep, despite knowing how important good sleep hygiene is? Scientific research is here to help answer this question.
- Work: work is one of the main causes of a bad night’s sleep or not enough sleep. As we all know, it can be a bottomless pit for anxious and dysfunctional thoughts that can keep you up at night, ruminating over deadlines and presentations. Or it may be that your work shifts are not conducive to allowing you to sleep how and when you would like to.
- Children: however much we love them, children are another prevalent cause of a poor quality of sleep. Children can find it difficult to sleep at night and often wake up their parents, interrupting their sleep throughout their sleep cycle.
- The surrounding space: the noise, lighting and temperature of the bedroom are key to guaranteeing restful sleep.
- Digital devices: using a computer, tablet or smartphone and watching television all day, especially in the hours before bed, is hugely counterproductive to sleep. Blue light displays inhibit the production of the sleep hormone melatonin. Leaving devices on during the night can also cause you to wake up to notifications or vibrations. We recommend turning all devices off an hour before going to bed.
- Poor lifestyle choices: going to bed too late, drinking alcohol and caffeine, and consuming nicotine are undoubtedly things to avoid if you are trying to sleep longer and better.
- Some medical conditions: for example, people who suffer from heart disease, obesity or diabetes may struggle with associated sleep disorders. Then there are medical conditions that have a direct effect on different phases of sleep, including sleep apnea (which causes sufferers to wake up suddenly in the night with the feeling of suffocation) or restless legs syndrome (when people affected can only find relief from discomfort by moving their legs).
How can we prevent a lack of sleep? Helpful tips and tricks
Now that we’re fully aware of the importance of sleeping well, what can we do if we struggle to get enough sleep?
- Try relaxation techniques and, more generally, cognitive behavioural therapies that promote sleep, lulling you into the right state of mind for sleep while releasing muscular tension.
- Change your habits, looking to go to bed at a time that will allow you enough hours of sleep and avoiding any stimulating substances. Establishing a routine can help your body to regulate its circadian rhythm. We therefore recommend not sleeping in to midday on Sunday if you can’t do so every day, sorry!
- Create a comfortable space, removing any potentially annoying noises, reducing light from both immediate sources and early morning sunlight, choosing a suitable mattress and pillow, and keeping the bedroom temperature between 18-20°C. You should also use the bed only for activities associated with sleep.
- Don’t use electronic devices or leave them on at night, which will help to eliminate the negative effects of blue light and night-time notifications on sleep.
- Eat a light dinner. Digestion gets the metabolism going and can also lead to heartburn, which can cause restless sleep.
- Use a mouth guard if you suffer from bruxism (grinding your teeth). Most people who suffer from this don’t realize until they wake up in the morning with intense pain in their jaw muscles.
Taking a sleep supplement containing melatonin can help to reduce the time it takes to fall asleep. Sleeping well makes sure that our body gets enough hours of good rest every night, which keeps our mind and body functioning properly throughout the day.
- Dietary supplements are not intended to substitute a varied and balanced diet and should be taken as part of a healthy lifestyle.
- Melatonin contributes towards reducing the time it takes to fall asleep.
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- The Economist. Which countries get the most sleep? Available at: https://www.economist.com/1843/2018/03/01/which-countries-get-the-most-sleep. Accessed February 2022.
- Kuula L et al. Sleep Med 2019;62:69–76.
- Landgeist, Sleep Duration in Asia. Available at: https://landgeist.com/2021/05/17/sleep-duration-in-asia. Accessed February 2022.