In today’s busy world, many of my patient’s complain of not sleeping well. They burn the candle at both ends and may wind up not going to bed until 3 or 4 a.m. and get up again at 7 a.m. to start another workday! This is a destructive pattern that can wreak havoc on your health.
The ill health effects from not sleeping enough are numerous and can have disastrous consequences. Did you know that major accidents could be caused by sleep deprivation fatigue? That’s right. Recent research shows that the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the space shuttle Challenger accident, and the nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island were all contributed to by sleep loss fatigue on the part of the workers involved.
Let’s look at a few common ways that sleep deprivation effects can occur.
Causes of Sleep Deprivation
Shift work: People who work different rotating shifts like nurses, doctors, police officers, pilots, air traffic controllers, all experience some level of sleep-deprived fatigue. In fact, these occupations have very high levels of falling asleep on the job and fatigue-related errors.
Time Travel: If you travel across time zones frequently, jet lag can send your circadian rhythms, or internal time clock, into a tailspin that takes several days to recover. Travel like this more than once a month and you could be suffering from severe sleep deprivation.
Social Habits: Drinking alcohol or caffeine regularly before bed is one of the most common causes of sleep deprivation. Many people are under the false impression that alcohol will help them sleep. While alcohol may make you drowsy initially, later, it causes restless sleep patterns, perhaps from low blood sugar levels that can occur after consuming a fair amount of alcohol.
Medications: Certain medications, like thyroid replacements, some asthma medications, pain preparations (especially ones that contain caffeine), some vitamin and mineral supplements, can have a stimulating effect on you and keep you awake and/or with restless sleep. Even sleeping pills, if taken for a long while, can cause you to sleep fitfully and not rest completely. You can build up tolerance to sleep aids needing to take more and more, which can result in overdoses.
Illness/Medical Conditions: Conditions like asthma or other respiratory conditions can cause sleep apnea and result in causing you to wake up gasping for air several times a night. Depression and stress are common causes of insomnia as well.
Are You Sleep Deprived?
Most of you know the answer to that question just by the way you feel each day when you get up and/or how you feel going through your day. Do you wake up easily and feel refreshed and ready for your day or do you have to force yourself to get up? Do you have an adequate amount of energy to get you through your day or do you find yourself fighting falling asleep all day?
As I mentioned earlier, sleep deprivation can cause a lot of physical symptoms that include:
- Mental confusion, irritability
- Inability to concentrate and impaired learning
- Disturbances in weight control hormones ghrelin and leptin with subsequent weight gain
- Muscle and joint aches and pains – fibromyalgia is aggravated by sleep deprivation
- Depression – can both cause and be a symptom of sleep deprivation
- Fatigue and/or weakness, impaired reflexes, clumsiness
- Falling asleep at your job, stopped at a traffic light/sign
Sleep is a very important period of our day as it is a time when our bodies repair themselves not only physically but also mentally. I’m always amazed when some of my patients tell me how much sleep they get, or should I say don’t get, a night – many of them are in the 3 hour range! It’s no wonder they’re feeling poorly! They’re dragging themselves around in a half asleep daze!
Here are some things you can do to get yourself back on the right sleep track and feel better.
How To Avoid Sleep Deprivation
People need a minimum of 6 hours sleep a night to be functional and stay healthy. This needs to be undisturbed, quality sleep without noise or interruption. However, you can prepare yourself for good sleep quality a few hours before going to bed.
- Watch food and drink. Avoid alcohol, caffeine, or heavy/spicy meals after 6 pm.
- Avoid strenuous exercise. Aerobic exercise before bed tends to rev up your metabolism. The only exception to this may be swimming leisurely in a heated pool, which for many people relaxes muscles and depletes tension.
- Don’t Bring Work Home. Avoid working in bed and/or trying to make critical decisions about work issues just before going to bed.
- Soothing Activity. Take a warm bath or listen to some quieting music. Don’t watch television in bed.
- Block out noise. If you share walls with people in apartments or condominiums who keep late hours, wear earplugs.
- Take natural sleep inducers. Drink some warm milk or sleep inducing herbal tea like Rooibos red tea, chamomile. Or, take a few drops of Valerian, an herbal sleep inducer. If you’re jet-lagged, one 3 mg tablet of melatonin for a few days can help you reset your sleep cycle.
- Disconnect telephone ringers. Unless you’re expecting an urgent call, or are emergency on-call personnel such as a doctor, nurse, fireman, police officer, a phone call in the middle of the night can be very jarring and adrenaline pumping which can keep you awake the rest of the night.
In addition, our bodies are designed to sleep at night when it’s dark. The skin of our eyelids is thin so that light filters through them and signals our brain to wake up. Darkness tells our brain to quiet down into sleep mode. For this reason, shift workers, who have to sleep during the day, have the most difficulty with sleep deprivation symptoms. Here are some things specific to shift workers that you can do to fight sleep deprivation effects:
- Optimize your day sleep environment by making sure you have a night-like darkened room. This means installing light blocking drapes or shades or wear a good sleep mask designed to keep light out.
- Turn off the ringer on your telephone.
- Let your postman, package delivery services, or solicitors know that you are a day sleeper by posting a small sign near your doorbell not to ring the bell. Or, simply disconnect it!
- You cannot regulate outside noise from traffic, kids playing, lawnmowers, snow blowers, etc, so the best thing is to invest in some heavy duty ear plugs, the kind airport workers wear which significantly block your hearing.
- Regulate the temperature of your bedroom. People sleep best at temperatures between 68 and 70. Too cold, too hot will keep you awake.
- Schedule catnaps on breaks, or down times of work, if possible. 20-30 minutes of sitting quietly with your eyes closed, body relaxed can give you many of the benefits of sleep without being completely asleep.
- Catch up on sleep on days off.
Sleep deprivation can take a serious physical and emotional toll on you. With the economy the way it is, people cannot afford to refuse taking a job because it involves working a late night or graveyard shift. However, if you follow the advice above, you should be able to sleep well and minimize, or avoid, the effects of sleep deprivation.
If you continue to have problems, please contact your doctor who may need to prescribe a short-term sleep medication to help you get back into a healthy sleep cycle.