There is no scientific consensus on why people sleep. Nonetheless, there is a general agreement that sleep is a fundamental human need and is, therefore, a critical part of human life, just like food.
According to the National Sleep Foundation, teenagers, young adults, and all other adults should get at least 7 hours of sleep on a daily basis. Numerous studies have established that getting enough quality sleep is a prerequisite for good overall health as well as the quality of life. Additionally, some studies have also established a clear link between getting enough quality sleep and safety.
Unfortunately, many people do not get enough quality sleep and given the hard economic times as well as the growing dominance of technology in human life; this is hardly a surprise.
(Source: TEDx Talks)
The American Sleep Organization defines sleep deprivation as a situation where an individual is not getting enough total sleep.
Sleep comprises of two stages, non-REM sleep and rapid eye movement (REM). Non-REM sleep is further comprised of 3 major stages the first of which is partial sleep. In the second stage, sleep is deeper than the first stage and may help in the recovery process. The last stage is when the individual gets into a profound sleep which the body uses to facilitate the restoration and recovery process.
On the other hand, REM sleep is when a person goes into dreams. This type of sleep features fast eye movements and an inability to move muscles. According to sleep experts, it is important to get enough total sleep time as well as enough of both REM and non-REM sleep.
Sleep deprivation is a major problem in the United States with some even asserting that it is a public health problem. According to a Center for Disease Control and Prevention report, 34.8% of all American adults get less than the recommended minimum of 7 hours of sleep. This means that over 83 million American adults suffer from sleep deprivation.
As noted earlier, sleep is an essential human need, and the human mind and body require it for efficient functioning. Sleep deprivation is associated with some health problems and even drug addiction.
1. Sleep Deprivation And Physical Health Problems
Many studies have proven that there is a link between getting enough sleep and overall human health and well-being. Sleep deprivation leads to both physical and mental health problems.
Physical health concerns include;
Healing and Restoration Processes
Although many people associate sleep with long periods of inactivity, the truth is that the human body is normally hard at work as one is sleeping. Indeed, a growing body of research has established that the human body uses sleep to rest and in the process, recover from any damage and ultimately protect itself against disease.
Experts attribute this to the fact that sleep is part of the natural rhythm of life and when it is interrupted, the brain and the body function with less efficiency; including its ability to heal and restore itself.
Researchers have established a link between sleep deprivation and fewer capillary vessels and fibroblasts all of which are vital for recovery. Further, these studies posit that sleep deprivation can negatively affect the wound healing process of the body.
Additionally, sleep facilitates the detoxification process which involves eliminating toxins from the body. Continued sleep deprivation can slow down the repair process and possibly even shut it down completely.
Sleep Deprivation And Type 2 Diabetes
Type 2 diabetes is a condition where there is too much glucose (sugar) in the blood. It also heightens the likelihood of getting heart disease. The risk of developing type 2 diabetes is affected by factors such as weight. Family medical history and diet is a well-known fact. However, many people are unaware that sleep is also a significant risk factor for type 2 diabetes.
Numerous studies have shown the link between sleep deprivation and increased risk of type 2 diabetes. Many studies particularly note that the risk is higher in those who sleep for 6 hours or less every night.
Firstly, sleep deprivation is associated with increased wake time. When one stays awake for more time, the body releases less insulin and at the same time, enhances the production of stress hormones such as cortisol.
Although these stress hormones are meant to help, the body stay awake, then making it harder for insulin to function properly ultimately leading to increased glucose levels in the blood stream which in turn increases the risk of type 2 diabetes.
Secondly, sleep deprivation may increase appetite and lead to overeating. In most cases, individuals may crave carbohydrates and sugary foods all of which can increase the amount of sugar in the blood subsequently resulting in a situation where the body is incapable of making enough insulin. Furthermore, and in connection to this, overeating and overindulgence in high-calorie foods may result in increased body weight and ultimately, obesity which is a significant risk factor for type 2 diabetes.
Sleep deprivation may make individuals feel more tired and lazier. Such individuals may engage in less physical exercise and activity which may ultimately lead to weight gain and high levels of sugar in the blood. Obesity may also result in other health problems such as high blood pressure, heart disease and certain types of cancer.
Sleep Deprivation And Fibromyalgia
Sleep deprivation significantly increases the risk of contracting fibromyalgia. This is a disorder that features chronic musculoskeletal pain as well as fatigue, moodiness and even memory issues. In one study adult women who frequently experienced sleeping problems and deficiencies were between 3 and 5 times more likely to develop fibromyalgia than women who did not have sleep problems.
Sleep Deprivation And Growth In Children
Children who do not get enough sleep are more likely to develop growth problems. The growth hormone is important not only for the growth of the body and its parts, but also in training and recovery. In adults, this hormone is often released throughout the day as one engages in exercise or engages in physical activity.
In children, however, the growth hormone is mostly produced when they sleep and more specifically when delta sleep starts. Interruption of deep non-REM sleep or an insufficient amount of it for extended periods of time may result in a deficiency of the growth hormone and eventually lead to growth problems.
2. Sleep Deprivation And Its Effects On The Brain
Lack of enough sleep has adverse effects on the brain and subsequently, on an individual’s cognitive functions. Researchers have shown links between sleep deprivation and overactivity in the pre-frontal cortex. This is the part of the brain that is responsible for functions such as storing working memory, reasoning and judgment.
More recent research has proposed that sleep deprivation may cause the brain to eat itself. This happens as the brain cells responsible for cleaning out the worn-out cells from the brain go into overdrive. These cells, known as astrocytes, end up eating into the brains synapses which lead to breakdowns in the brain’s connections. Further, chronic sleep deprivation may increase the risk of contracting dementias such as Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases.
Some studies have also suggested a relationship between sleep deprivation and emotional balance. According to these studies, sleep deprivation leads to an increase in the activity of the amygdala which is a part of the brain that is responsible for regulating emotional responses such as fear and pleasure.
In one study, sleep deprived individuals had negative emotional reactions to negative pictures than non-sleep deprived individuals. Further, individuals may lose their neutrality leading to symptoms such as emotional imbalance, moodiness, and depression.
3. Sleep Deprivation And Drug Addiction
Sleep problems such as sleep deprivation have a complex relationship with drug addiction. Many studies recognize substance and drug abuse as a cause of sleep deprivation. For example, it is a well-known fact that abuse of alcohol and drugs such as cocaine, amphetamines, and methamphetamines can directly contribute to sleep deprivation by making it hard for the body to relax.
However, a growing body of research suggests that the relationship between sleep deprivation and drug addiction may cut both ways. In recovering addicts, for example, the struggle of dealing with insomnia and other sleeping problems that arise from withdrawal is often cited a strong risk factor for relapse. This is because recovering addicts may get the urge to treat the anxiety of sleep deprivation with the drug or substance they are recovering from.
Recent studies have also suggested a link between sleep deprivation and the risk of future drug and substance abuse in children and adolescents. In one study conducted at the University of Michigan, children aged between 3 and 5 years who had sleeping problems were twice as likely to engage in drug and substance abuse in their teenage years.
In another study of adolescents, it was found that those who slept less were also more likely to participate in risky behaviors including drug addiction as older adolescents or as young adults. In yet another study, high school students who reported sleeping for less than 8 hours a night were more likely to report current use of tobacco, alcohol, and marijuana. Further, they are more likely to develop into lifetime drug addicts.
There are several possible explanations for this relationship. One possible explanation for this is that sleep deprivation affects the parts of the brain that deals with judgment, inhibitions, perceptions of reward and impulsivity. Poor regulation of such functions increases the risk of drug and substance abuse.
The second possible explanation is that such children/adolescents may turn to drug and substance abuse as a way of self-treating the sleep deprivation. Others may take up these habits as a way of self-treating effects of sleep deprivation such as depression.
In a bid to treat their sleep deprivation, some individuals may start taking sleeping pills. Although there is evidence to suggest that these pills may work in treating short term sleeping problems, there is also an abundance of evidence suggesting that sleeping pills can cause dependence and addiction.
Most sleeping pills are in the category of drugs known as sedative-hypnotics. This category also comprises of drugs such as benzodiazepines which include Librium, Valium, and Xanax. Common sleeping pills include Ambien and Sonata. Some individuals even take deadly combinations of these pills with other drugs and substances such as alcohol.
Continued use of sleeping pills also leads to dependence whereby individuals are unable to fall asleep without sleeping pills. In some individuals, resistance to sleeping pills may also increase subsequently leading to individuals taking bigger doses of the medication for them to fall asleep. Some tell tale signs of sleeping pill addiction include experiencing frequent memory loss, getting cravings for the sleeping pills and hopping from one doctor to another in search of prescription refills.
Additionally, one may experience withdrawal symptoms whenever they try to come off the pills. These may include symptoms such as confusion, slight fever, nausea and vomiting, insomnia, hallucinations, agitation and anxiety among others.
In 2013, the CDC suggested that up to 9 million Americans regularly use sleeping pills. Given the increased prevalence of sleeping problems, this number has likely increased.
In 2011, 30, 149 cases of emergency room visits arising from the nonmedical use of Ambien were reported. It is also worth noting that up to 100 million prescriptions of Benzodiazepine are given out every year. This makes it among the most prescribed sleeping medication.
Experts also suggest that people are more likely to abuse benzodiazepines and use them in combination with alcohol and other prescription medications. This may lead to death. In fact, some surveys suggest that the number of benzodiazepine related deaths in the nation has increased over the years. In 1996 for example, there were only 0.58 overdose deaths per every 100,000 adults.
By 2013, this number had increased to 3.07 per 100,000 adults. Ultimately benzodiazepines played a role in 7,973 overdose deaths in 2013. These statistics are a clear indication of drug abuse and possibly benzodiazepine related drug addiction.
4. Other Effects of Sleep Deprivation
Aside from increasing the risk of contracting some health problems and possibly even drug addiction, sleep deprivation may also have an impact on security and prevention of accidents.
Sleep deprivation is detrimental to decreased productivity, inability to make proper judgments and a loss of focus which then leads to an increase in errors. Ultimately, lack of focus may result in accidents. For example, sleep deprived surgeons and doctors are more prone to medical errors. Similarly, sleep deprivation is believed to have played a significant role in disasters such as the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown.