Sleep affects nearly every bodily function, from cognitive ability and memory, the immune system’s ability to fight off infection, and how the metabolism is regulated.  “Good sleep” is a combination of the right amount of quality sleep at the right time and on a consistent basis. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends adults sleep a minimum of seven hours per night on a regular basis, which means more than one-third of Americans are sleep deprived

“The U.S. population is one of the most sleep deprived populations on the planet,” said Rose Franco, MD, pulmonologist and sleep medicine specialist and MCW faculty member. “Sleep is an afterthought in our culture, often considered a waste of time. But just one poor night of sleep or one very long period of wakefulness can have enough of an effect to lead to serious consequences, like a car crash caused by drowsy driving.”

Effects of Sleep Deprivation 

  1. Sleep deprivation can have the same effects on the body as being intoxicated. Staying alert, recalling simple facts or driving a car become difficult. 
  2. Sleep deprivation increases the risk of serious health problems. People who are sleep deprived are more likely to have heart disease, high blood pressure, cancer or a stroke. They are also more likely to get infections because the body’s immune responses are blunted by lack of deep sleep. 
  3. Sleep deprivation increases the risk of Type 2 diabetes and obesity. Lack of sleep affects how the body uses insulin, resulting in higher blood sugar levels. It also affects the hormones that control appetite, which leads to feeling hungry and increased food intake.

Symptoms of Sleep Deprivation

A person suffering from sleep deprivation may not be aware of it. Often, an event of sleepiness will occur that will cause a person to wake up and realize they were asleep. Sometimes, it takes a family member or friend to recognize the symptoms of sleep deprivation and call attention to the problem.

Common symptoms of sleep deprivation are:

  • Dozing off while driving
  • Daytime sleepiness, such as struggling to stay awake during a meeting 
  • Difficulty concentrating, for example, reading and re-reading the same piece of content with an inability to absorb it
  • Poor memory
  • Feeling tired
  • Low sex drive
  • Mood changes, such as increased anxiety or irritability

Daytime sleepiness should not be confused with dozing off in the evenings. It is normal to fall asleep when reading or watching television at night. Around bedtime, the body’s brain chemistry shifts to prepare for sleep. 

“If you start to fall asleep during ‘me time’ activities at night, stop what you’re doing and go to bed,” Dr. Franco said.

Causes of Sleep Deprivation

Sleep deprivation can be caused by not getting enough sleep, not getting good quality sleep or both. Sometimes, people can feel forced into sleep deprivation simply because of day-to-day life, like working two jobs or caring for family. If you struggle with symptoms of sleep deprivation, it can be helpful to keep a journal or use an app to track your sleep habits to narrow down the cause. If you think getting quality sleep is the problem, there might be lifestyle changes you can make to prioritize good sleep. Things you cannot control should be discussed with your primary care doctor.

Common issues that affect the quality of sleep include:

When to Talk to Your Doctor

If you are struggling with sleep deprivation, make an effort to form healthy sleep habits.  

Here are some tips for good sleep hygiene recommendations from the National Sleep Foundation: 

  • Set a sleep schedule by waking up and going to bed around the same time each day and night
  • Follow a routine that involves budgeting 30 minutes to unwind before bed, using the bedroom as a place for relaxation and unplugging from electronics 
  • Create a comfortable sleeping environment. Sleep in a quiet, cool, dark room on comfortable bedding

“If you are making changes and still struggling to get enough good quality sleep, talk to your doctor,” Dr. Franco said. “It is important to first address the overall health concerns that could be a factor in your sleep deprivation. If there are no underlying health concerns, your doctor may refer you to a sleep medicine specialist who can diagnose and treat sleep disorders.”

For more information about sleep disorders, visit: froedtert.com/sleep-disorders.