Understanding Sleep Deprivation

Increase Your Knowledge

50-70 million US adults have a sleep disorder.

- Source: Sleep Association -


Between juggling academics, work, activities and a social life, feeling exhausted is an accepted part of the college experience for most students. Yet it does not have to be that way, nor should it be. Over the years, sleep has been deprioritized in our society and some even wear their lack of sleep as a badge of honor. Tiredness is not something to be glamourized. Chronic fatigue seriously impacts physical health, mental performance, quality of life and even safety.

The condition of not getting enough sleep is called sleep deprivation. According to studies conducted by Stanford University's Department for the Diagnosis, 68% of college students aren't getting the sleep they need and Harvard Medical School Sleep Medicine Division reported only 11% of American college students sleep well.

Sleep is important because it:

  1. Improves learning
  2. Regulates moods
  3. Helps the brain function properly
  4. Keeps your heart and blood vessels healthy
  5. Works to repair the body and prevent disease
  6. Helps the body maintain a healthy balance of hormones
  7. Supports healthy growth and development
  8. Keeps the immune system strong
  9. Supports cognitive functioning
Sleep Cycles: How restful is your sleep?
Even if you are getting adequate sleep, not all sleep is created equal. Our body needs to go through a full cycle of sleep to receive the full restorative benefits.

Here is a quick primer on the 5 Stage of Sleep and the importance of each:
  • Stage 1:Five to ten minutes long, in this phase your eyes are closed you can easily be woken up.

  • Stage 2:In this light sleep stage, your heart rate slows and body temp drops to prepare for deep sleep. It lasts 10-25 minutes. An average adult spends 50% of sleep time in this stage.

  • Stage 3:You are now in deep NREM (Non Rapid Eye Movement) sleep. This is the most restorative state of sleep. The body repairs, regrows tissues, builds bone and muscles, and strengthens the immune system. It is harder to wake up. This stage lasts 10-40 minutes.

  • Stage 4:The is a very deep sleep phase with rhythmic heartbeat and breathing, and minimal to no muscle movement. The brain produces delta waves, or slow waves, so you are completely disengaged. It is the most refreshing stage of sleep when it is complete. It is best to not wake up during this phase otherwise you will feel groggy and disoriented.

  • Stage 5:This is the phase of REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep which happens about 90 minutes after you fall asleep. It is the final stage of sleep. This is when you dream and your heart rate and breathing start to return to wakeful levels.

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Who is at Risk?

When you think of who needs to prioritize sleep, babies or young children, and even the elderly, may pop to mind. In fact, we all do - no matter what stage of life, gender or ethnicity. Unfortunately, it is more common for people to think of sleep as the place to cut back on to gain more hours in their day. Inadequate sleep is so pervasive that back in 2014 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) called insufficient sleep a public health epidemic and it has not gotten better since then.

You may remember having a set bedtime as a child, but as you have grown, keeping to consistent sleep habits can be difficult. As we get older, there are many factors that impede our ability to get enough sleep. The following groups are ones most at risk for suffering from sleep deprivation:
  • College students
  • Adults (all genders impacted equally)
  • Elderly
  • Caregivers
  • Shift workers
  • Military personnel
  • Those with medical conditions
  • Those with sleep disorders
Sleep Deprivation or Sleep Disorder? With one-third of adults in America getting insufficient sleep according to a 2016 CDC report, sleepiness is a way of life for many of us. When do you know if your chronic sleep deprivation is something more serious or caused by an underlying medical issue? If you have concern it is best to seek help from a medical professional to see if you have a sleep disorder. Sleep disorders are a group of conditions that make it difficult to get adequate sleep on a regular basis.

Common types of sleeping disorders are:
  • Dyssomnias - A broad classification of sleeping disorders involving difficulty getting to sleep, remaining asleep, or of excessive sleepiness
  • Parasomnias - Parasomnias are undesirable experiences that occur "around sleep" including sleepwalking, sleep terrors, sleep eating and sleep paralysis
  • Sleep disorders associated with mental, neurological & other medical disorders - Sleep disorders often coexist with anxiety and panic disorders, depression, ADHD, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder and other medical issues such as Parkinson's Disease and Alzheimer's.
  • Insomnia - Trouble falling and/or staying asleep.
  • Sleep apnea - A serious sleep disorder where breathing is interrupted.
  • Restless leg syndrome - A nervous disorder that causes overwhelming urges to move legs.
  • Narcolepsy - A chronic sleep disorder that affects the brain's ability to control sleep-wake cycles.

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Symptoms & Causes

What does sleep deprivation look and feel like? What are the causes of it? Chances are you have experienced them yourself. A study by Brown University reported that 11% of college students report feeling rested, which means over 70% of students experience disrupted sleep or problems sleeping. Understanding the symptoms of sleep deprivation is important in managing your health.

The effects of lost sleep compound over time, but at first you may notice that you:
  • Feel drowsy throughout your day and have trouble staying awake during menial tasks
  • Crave more sweets, carb, high fat foods and/or drink more caffeine
  • Have trouble concentrating or remembering things
  • Notice a reduction in physical strength and coordination
  • Fall asleep within moments of sitting or lying down because you are so exhausted
  • Nod off during your day because it is hard to keep your eyes open?these ?micro-sleeps? sometimes happen involuntarily because fatigue is so great
As sleeplessness continues, the impact on your body becomes more significant and puts you at risk for a host of issues from weight gain and prematurely aging skin, to increased risk of depression, stroke and even death, due to accidents. We will cover the health impacts of prolonged sleep deprivation in more detail in Section 4. Now, we will investigate the causes of sleep deprivation.

There are many causes of sleeplessness especially in the bustling and hectic life of a college student. Here are four common causes to be aware of:
  • Schedule - Whether it's a late-night work shift, all night study session or socializing at a party, not having a schedule conducive to a full night's sleep can cause problems.
  • Pre-sleep activities - How you spend your last two hours before bed makes a difference. Watching TV, spending time on electronics and high energy activities before bed impact your quality of sleep.
  • Sleep environment - Noise, temperature and even an uncomfortable bed can all be reasons for broken sleep and restlessness during the night
  • Medical problems - Sleep disorders such as apnea, insomnia and restless leg syndrome, as well as physical or mental health conditions including anxiety, stress, depression, pain and paranoia are all associated with inhibiting quality sleep

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The Impact

One of the keys to a better quality of life begins with sleep. It is just as important as eating healthy and exercising. When sleep is not happening, it adversely affects the body. Here are the surprising ways that sleep deprivation impacts your body.

Mood - There is a heavy correlation of reduced sleep and increased irritability and moodiness. At its worst, lack of sleep can lead to anxiety, depression or other mental illnesses. If these conditions already exist then insufficient sleep makes it worse. Sleep allows the body to reset and refresh itself to handle the challenges of the coming day.

Learning ability - Cognitive functions decrease as sleep decreases. Recent study's have shown that students that sleep more have a higher GPA. Students that sacrifice sleep usually have a lower GPA. This most likely has to do with sleep's role in the memory process and storing the information we acquired during the day.

Health - Sleep is our body's way of repairing itself at night and inadequate sleep is linked to a variety of increased health risks, including:
  • A weakened immune system
  • Increased risk for depression and mental illness
  • Increased risk for stroke, high blood pressure, heart disease, and asthma attacks
  • Increased risk for untreated sleep disorders like insomnia, sleep apnea, and narco-lepsy
Accidents - One of the most frightening consequences of sleep deprivation is accidents, which can lead to serious injury and even death. One type of accident is grabbing headlines more frequently now, drowsy driving, which is on the rise as the sleep deprivation epidemic continues. In fact, the U. S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports that drowsy driving is related to at least 100,000 motor-vehicle crashes and more than 1,500 deaths per year.

Impaired Judgement - Lack of sleep impacts our ability to make good decisions.

Appearance - When our body is not getting the sleep it needs and feels fatigued, it tends to crave sugary, high fat and high carb foods that can lead to weight gain. Also, missing those deep sleep hours when the body repairs itself has been linked to premature aging of the skin.

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Improving Sleep

Are you tired of feeling tired? In absence of a medical diagnosis for a sleep disorder, you can remedy sleep deprivation by being aware of your current sleep habits, daily stressors and implementing a sleep hygiene routine. One of the easiest steps you can take for better sleep is to make sleep a priority. Being rested is key to better grades and a healthier and happier life.

What is Sleep Hygiene?
Sleep hygiene is a term used to describe healthy practices and habits that lead to a restful night?s sleep. It was developed during the 1970s to help people suffering from mild to moderate insomnia and is now widely adopted to promote quality sleep. If you?ve suffered a night of tossing and turning, taking too long to fall asleep or daytime sleepiness, chances are you've experienced poor sleep hygiene. Take a moment to think about your day that led to that night's poor sleep:
  • Was it unusually busy or stressful?
  • Did you give yourself time to unwind before bed?
  • Did you prioritize your bedtime or stay up late?
  • Did you have caffeine, alcohol or a heavy meal too close to bedtime?
  • Did you exercise or spend time outdoors?
  • Were you too hot or too cold while sleeping?
  • Did you stay up late using social media, playing video games, etc.?
Just answering these questions may help you pinpoint what led to the restless sleep. You may only need to make a few simple adjustments to your routine to experience better quality sleep.

Practicing good sleep hygiene is easy and is based mostly on common sense. The success comes from making it a habit. Implementing a sleep hygiene routine helps you transition from a busy day to a sense of calm that promotes sleepiness and creates an environment conducive to sleep.

Key elements of a positive sleep hygiene routine include a regular sleep schedule, creating a cool, dark, calm environment for sleep, using naps sparingly, limiting exercise, exposure to light (including electronic devices) and mental stimulation (including studying and worrying) before bed. If you have trouble falling or staying asleep get out of bed, and avoid stimulants such as alcohol, nicotine and caffeine in the hours leading up to bedtime.

For college students, here are additional tip for improving sleep:
  • Take 30 minutes to relax before bed. Don't study or use a computer in bed and stop studying as you get closer to your bedtime to give your brain a break.
  • Shut off electronic devices (computer, TV/movies/videos, video games and cell phone, etc.) 30 minutes before bedtime.
  • Use earplugs to limit noise from dorm life and roommates.
  • Use an eye pillow to block out bright lights.

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Listed below are resources to help you learn more about sleep deprivation. Also included are websites and apps to assist in stress management and meditation with a focus on improving sleep. As always, if you feel you are suffering from a sleep disorder, talk to your parent or see a medical professional.

Sleep Education
  • National Sleep Foundation - Provides information on sleep disorders and a medical directory to find a local sleep specialist.
  • Sleep Education - A repository of information provided by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.
Stress Management
  • Calm - The most popular app for meditation and sleep. Free trial available.
  • Relax Melodies - This free app provides soothing music to help you sleep.
  • Sleep by Headspace - Provided by the popular Headspace mediation app, this app con-tains specific content to promote sleep through guided meditations, soothing music and tips to improve sleep hygiene for $12.99/month (after free trial).
  • FutureHealth Anxiety & Stress - Resource page to learn more about anxiety and stress and how to manage it.

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