Sleep deprivation

Sleep deprivation

What is sleep deprivation?

Sleep deprivation occurs when you get less sleep than needed to feel awake and attentive. The need for sleep varies a lot as some people require more sleep than others to avoid sleep deprivation. Some people, such as elderly adults, appear to be more resistant to the effects of sleep deprivation, while others, especially children and teens, are more vulnerable.

The National Sleep Foundation of 2015, recommend the following amount of sleep per day:  

  • New-born (0-3 months): 14-17 hours

  • Infants (4-11 months): 12-15 hours

  • Toddlers (1-2 years): 11-14 hours

  • Kindergarten age children (3-5 years): 10-13 hours

  • Young children (6-13 years): 9-11 hours

  • Teenagers (14-17 years): 8-10 hours

  • Adults (18-64 years): 7-9 hours

  • Elderly adults (65+): 7-8 hours


What are the symptoms?

Sleep deprivation can lead to the following symptoms:

  • Mood swings

  • Fatigue

  • Irritability

  • Forgetfulness

  • Difficulty concentrating

  • Lack of interest and motivation

  • Reduced sexual desire

After being awake for about 16 hours, the body will attempt to balance the need for sleep. If sleep is counteracted, the brain will achieve sleep through brief sleep attacks. This is an uncontrollable reaction which inhibits you from registering stimuli from your surroundings, during the brief sleep attack.

The eyes often remain open during sleep attacks, even though you do not briefly detect any visual stimuli. As these attacks occur suddenly, people suffering from sleep deprivation – for example those working with heavy machinery or driving – risk causing catastrophic situations for both themselves as well as innocent bypasses.

The short-term sleep attack will continue to occur despite your best attempts at keeping yourself awake. In addition, it is extremely difficult to remain awake for more than 48 hours in a row, thanks to the body’s built-in sleep mechanism.


What are the complications?

Sleep deprivation weakens the ability in the part of the brain that reasons (the Prefrontal Cortex), which then reduces the ability to control the emotional part of the brain (the Amygdala). This will result in abnormal emotional responses. Sleep also seems to be necessary to improve the brain through learning. When the brain is deprived of sleep, it becomes difficult to concentrate and store new information in the memory.

When you stay awake all night, or significantly reduce your sleep, the body no longer releases the hormones that are necessary to regulate growth and appetite. Rather, an abundance of stress hormones is produced, including ‘noradrenaline’ and ‘cortisol’. Moreover, lack of sleep lowers the body’s natural immune defence, which increases the risk of developing chronic medical problems.

People suffering from sleep deprivation are more inclined to experience feelings of worthlessness, inadequacy, powerlessness, failure, low self-esteem, poor work performance, conflicts with colleagues and a reduced well-being. However, many of these emotions remain despite a preserved waking state using artificial stimulants such as caffeine.

In addition, people with sleep deprivation show an increase on clinical scales that measure depression, anxiety and paranoia. Research also suggests that short-term sleep may be an indicator of weight increase among adults and children as an increase of 0,35 kg in BMI is connected with each hour of reduced sleep per day. The weight increase may result in an increased risk of hypertension, diabetes, obesity, heart attacks and strokes among people with sleep deprivation.  


How is it treated?

Overall, it is very important to meet your individual need for sleep, and the good news is that most of the negative effects related to sleep deprivation are counteracted once you start getting enough sleep again. The treatment for sleep deprivation is about satisfying the biological need for sleep, preventing a shortage of sleep and returning the accumulated sleep debt.   

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