How to Fix Sleep Deprivation

Catching Up On Lost Sleep

It’s called partial sleep deprivation which in turn leads to sleep debt. When we sleep consecutively less than our required number of hours each night, to meet our personal sleep needs, the sleep debt accumulates.

Sleep scientist, Dr Dale Rae explains.

“Everyone has a natural, built-in ‘sleep need’ that, on average, is anything from 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night. And, by that, we mean 7 to 9 hours of undisturbed, quality sleep. The human body is a creature of routine. Daily patterns of good nutrition, at least some mild form of exercise, and especially proper, quality sleep, afford us the physical and mental resilience to manage every next day.”

“That’s the ideal. But life can so easily dole out an emergency, a crisis, or just a time of life, that can leave us with little choice but to put in more waking hours and sleep a little less. The result is that, over a protracted period, we can build up a lack of sleep, or sleep debt. And if we don’t recognise it early on, it may have serious health consequences.”

Let’s take a closer look at sleep deprivation, some of its causes, symptoms and remedies.

What causes sleep deprivation?

As we well know, there can be life challenges that interrupt a well-intended routine. Work pressures might become more demanding. The early years of starting a family can be especially taxing on parents. Personal relationships or financial troubles can easily affect our much-needed sleep.

Being young and ambitious (or just young, really) we might take on the adage of “work hard, play harder”. That’s all good and well. And, in the prime of life, our bodies are more resilient to the excesses of youth. But, even then, could we not be doing ourselves a better service by actually taking better care – above all, allowing our minds and bodies to rest and recuperate each night, to the best of our next day’s performance?

A sudden shift in life, like a well-earned promotion, or the birth of a first child, can easily change priorities from our own health and well-being to other, seemingly more important objectives. Emboldened by career prospects, we might throw ourselves with greater fervour into every work day, including weekends. Starting a family needs a good parental tag team that can manage past the many months of sleep interruptions. Losing a little sleep is brushed off as just part of the deal. It’s a sacrifice we’re willing to make.

Then there are those unexpected, or unintended, curveballs that can be quite confronting. A lay-off, financial woes, relationship problems, an illness or a sudden loss. Underlying stress or anxiety begins to creep into both our waking day and night-time slumbers. Sleep is light or disrupted, even curtailed. In severe cases, that wide-eyed nightmare, insomnia, comes to visit.

There can also be less obvious causes of accumulated sleep disruption. For instance, a new prescription, or moving house where your new bedroom is unfamiliar. You may even be sleeping the number of hours that you think you need, but if your sleep quality is not what it should be, you may still be waking up tired and unrefreshed.

What are the typical symptoms of sleep deprivation?

Sleep deprivation can have a myriad of different symptoms because sleep affects so many of our body’s functions and any one of those may be impaired. You might feel physically ill, with a headache or gut issues. You might be mentally slow, slightly groggy or detached. Or just plain exhausted. Every day you may feel like you’re not quite “in the zone”. Or you may find your mood is affected. Suddenly, you’re more irritable or emotional.

Daytime behaviours are typically symptomatic of our quality of sleep. If we have an ‘off’ day now and then, we’ve likely just not had an optimal night’s sleep the night before. But if we begin to notice a daily pattern of behaviour, we’ve likely built up a sleep debt that starts to work against us each day.

  • We might wake up a little groggy, find more energy during the morning, but then feel ourselves flagging into the afternoon.
  • Our powers of concentration might not be as sharp as usual. Consequently, we might make clumsy mistakes as our motor skills are compromised.
  • There's the nodding head syndrome during a late meeting when you keep jolting yourself back into the room.
  • Being uncharacteristically grumpy, or snappy, when your behaviour is seen as an overreaction, or entirely inappropriate.
  • Making rash, ill-considered, or unengaged decisions.
  • Consuming caffeine and sugary treats throughout the day might give you a short-term energy boost, but it will likely not bode well for a good night’s rest.
  • Feeling slightly out of kilter, not being able to get through tasks as efficiently as usual, continually having to reschedule because you’re not feeling your best.
  • You may be catching colds, the flu or infections more regularly because insufficient sleep impairs your immune system.

How do you fix sleep debt?

Dr Rae addresses short-term and longer-term goals.

“Regaining control of your sleep is likely to be the better solution, and more achievable, rather than focusing on, or even obsessing about, the cause of your sleep debt. Turn your attention to what’s within your immediate control.”

Long-term sleep debt cannot be repaid overnight. Nor is it necessarily the best strategy to make up for lost sleep during the week by taking long sleep-ins during the weekends. This may just further disrupt your sleep routine and is not a substitute for consistently getting sufficient sleep during the week. What your body craves is a return to a sleep routine. Or, at the very least, the beginnings of returning to a sleep routine. Try to prioritise getting sufficient sleep each night, even if you are just gradually adding an extra hour, or even half-hour, each night to add back to your sleep time. Perhaps you can give thought to finding efficiencies in your day that will allow you to take even more control of your sleep routine. Often, we can be overwhelmed by sudden new challenges. But with time, we can adjust to those challenges and begin to manage our schedules more effectively.

How do you prevent sleep debt?

It’s the ideal “prevention is better than cure” scenario. But the pace and blur of life doesn’t always afford us the opportunity to self-gauge. Again, sleep debt accumulates over time. It creeps up. Dr Rae suggests several ways of spotting the possible onset of sleep debt and managing it appropriately:

  1. Identify and manage the cause – If your head continually ignores fatigue, the body will eventually take over. The immune system cannot function properly through relentless exhaustion. You may find that you’re catching colds and flu regularly. Perhaps you’re struggling with frequent tension headaches. If you’re overloaded at work or going through a particularly challenging time, adopt some coping mechanisms that might ease the level of pressure. A simple walk away from your desk can help to clear your mind. Power naps of no more than 10-20 minutes could give you interim relief and spur you on through the afternoon.
  2. Manage an interim sleep schedule – If you’re working overtime on an important project, or perhaps double-jobbing, revise your sleep schedule accordingly. But try to keep it routine. Understand, of course, that building up a sleep debt cannot be sustained indefinitely. Pay attention to affording yourself the best quality of sleep you can during challenging periods. Use calming techniques to quieten the mind and relax before sleep. Deep breathing, mild stretching, reading or meditating can divert your mind from your frenetic day and ready you for the limited hours that you have to sleep.
  3. Use daytime sleep techniques – The power nap mentioned earlier is a quick way to give you a mental boost. The reason these should not be over 10-20 minutes is to prevent you from falling into a deep sleep, which may leave you groggy and sluggish. Preferably take a nap earlier on in the day. Napping in the late afternoon could impact your usual sleep time. Again, while this may help you cope during a particularly challenging time when you are not getting enough sleep (for example, as a new parent whose babies are waking up throughout the night), this is by no means a long-term substitute for regularly getting sufficient at night.
  4. Know your limits – When you're overwhelmed during the day and have to process more in less time, you may notice now and then that your thinking and motor skills become stunted. You're just not being productive. Know when to shut down. If you're naturally a late sleeper, you may find it easier to work into the evening. If you're typically an early riser, get to bed earlier.

When under pressure, it actually becomes all the more important to prioritise sleep to help you cope physically, mentally and emotionally. Take care and be mindful that you cannot deprive yourself of your required sleeping hours indefinitely.

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TAKE CARE: Lifestyle recommendation is not medical advice. Always consult your healthcare professional should you be experiencing prolonged sleep difficulties or related health issues.