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Sleep Deprivation and our Health

Published on: 
29th April 2017

We all know that getting a good night’s sleep is essential to feeling well and performing at our best. Whilst we are sleeping and our body is resting our brains are busy processing information from the previous day as well as creating and consolidating new memories. Exactly how sleep enhances memory is still uncertain but what is clear is that both the hippocampus and the neocortex are involved – both known to be instrumental in memory formation and consolidation. Therefore, it follows that a lack of sleep is associated with a markedly decreased ability to learn and retain new information – something many of us have experienced in exam situations finding ourselves unable to recall information crammed in in the early hours of the previous morning.

How can sleep deprivation affect our health?

This isn’t the worst of it though – sleep deprivation has been associated with a number of serious health concerns - the least of which being poor judgement and impaired motor skills. It has been shown that less than 5 hours of sleep per night over extended periods of time can increase the risk of premature death by up to 15% due to the corrosive effect of sleep deprivation on the body’s defences by causing them to weaken over time. Other serious effects of sleep deprivation include heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, weakened immune response, micro-sleep (which when driving can be fatal for both self and others), weight gain, cognitive dysfunction, impaired brain activity and psychiatric disorders such as depression and hallucinations. Brain imaging studies have shown sleep deprived brains pumping energy into the pre-frontal cortex in order to mitigate effects of sleep deprivation such as sudden decrements in working memory and reduced ability to effectively plan and co-ordinate tasks.

Another aspect of sleep deprivation pertinent in certain industries where the capacity to perform effectively in social situations is paired with chronic sleep deprivation in (eg. Policework) is the tendency for the sleep deprived to misinterpret facial cues as threatening when they are, in fact, not. In technical terms this is described as sleep deprivation impairing both viscero-sensory brain and autonomic-cardiac discrimination of threatening from affiliative facial cues. People who report getting too little sleep also report being less social and lonelier than those who report adequate amounts of sleep. This is also due to the misinterpreting on salient facial cues.

What are the causes of fatigue?

The average healthy adult requires around 7-8 hours of quality sleep every night in order to perform at their optimal best. There are a number of factors that can interfere with the likelihood of getting a good night’s rest including:

Not eating a balanced diet and/or not eating enough for the body’s energy requirements

Depression – although primarily a psychological disorder, depression is well known to impact on the ability to get enough quality rest

Sleep Apnoea – the brief interruption in breathing occurring at regular intervals throughout the night serves to wake the sleeper up momentarily although they may be consciously unaware of it. This is enough to cause ongoing fatigue

Anaemia – Iron deficiency – common in women especially when menstruating. Can usually be easily corrected by seeing a health care professional and taking iron supplements

Caffeine – Although in small amounts caffeine can make one feel less tired and more alert, it has been shown that large amounts of caffeine can lead to long-term fatigue. This is especially salient in today’s world where the consumption of energy drinks at excessive amounts is all too common

Tips for getting quality sleep

Like many things, it is often easier said than done when it comes to getting adequate amounts of sleep. Jobs, friends, kids, housework all seem to get priority over our own wellbeing and it can often seem impossible to take time out to do the things we know we need to do in order to be our healthiest, happiest selves. Fortunately, there are a few small measures we can put in place that will go a long way to ensuring that we get adequate sleep every night and thus perform at our best. To begin with it is important to set regular sleeping and waking times. Going to bed at the same time allows melatonin (the chemical in the brain responsible for making us drowsy) to be released an hour or two before we are due to go to sleep – thus making sleep easier. It also helps to ensure that the bedroom is conducive to sleeping i.e. that it is dark, a nice temperature and comfortable. Ensure that the bedroom is only ever used for sleeping and sex – it is important to keep televisions and computers out of the bedroom as they only serve to distract us and interfere with our sleep. Avoid caffeine, alcohol and nicotine before bed and try not to eat for at least 2-3 hours before sleeping. Aim for 7-8 hours of quality, uninterrupted sleep every night and you should be well on your way to improving your quality of life and your overall health and wellbeing.