Sleep Deprivation: Symptoms & Natural Remedies

Dr. Group
by Dr. Edward Group DC, NP, DACBN, DCBCN, DABFM
Published on
A messy bed. Sleep deprivation can lead to serious health issues.

Are you sleep deprived or just tired? Not getting enough sleep is so common in the U.S. that more than one-third of Americans do not get enough, despite its importance to health and well-being. Sleep acts as a brain cleaner, clearing away neurotoxic waste that accumulates in the central nervous system when we're awake, which is why it is so crucial for optimal physical and mental health. Sleep is necessary for proper growth, digestion, healing, and maintenance of all the body's systems. In contrast, insufficient sleep leads to many harmful health consequences.[1]

What Is Sleep Deprivation?

Sleep deprivation means you aren't meeting your body's need for sleep. That need varies from person to person, but the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke recommends a minimum of seven to nine hours per night for adults.[2]

There are two stages of sleep: rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and non-REM sleep. Non-REM sleep happens in three phases, during which the body repairs tissues, builds bone and muscle, and strengthens the immune system. In REM sleep, your brain activity increases. Dreaming occurs during this stage. People cycle through the stages of non-REM and REM sleep several times a night. Your body requires both types.

How Much Sleep Do You Need?

The need for sleep is individual and changes as you age. Here are some general guidelines from NINDS:[2]

Age Hour(s)
Infant 16-18 Hours
School-age Children 9.5 Hours
Adults 7-9 Hours

*After age 60, sleep becomes lighter and awakenings are more common.

The Stages Of Sleep Deprivation

Pulling an all-nighter can make you feel drowsy and irritable. The effects get more serious as time goes on. Here's what happens at the various sleep deprivation stages:

At 24 hours

Even the "beginning" stage of sleep deprivation affect how you perform simple tasks, speech, cognitive tasks like memorizing details, and emotional control.[1] At around 20 to 25 hours of being sleep-deprived, your body and brain's impairment is comparable to that of a 0.10 percent blood alcohol concentration. Research also shows after 24 hours of sleeplessness, your ability to distinguish scents diminishes, your limbs may feel numb, and you may have increased sensitivity to pain.[1]

At 36 hours

Markers of inflammation in the body increase, setting the stage for long-term health consequences, such as heart disease and diabetes.

At 42 hours

More than 42 hours of sleep impairs your operational memory, and it's harder to concentrate because your attention span decreases.[1]

At 48 hours

After 48 hours, Your immune system is under siege: data show there's a 37 percent decrease in the number of natural killer (NK) cells.[1] At this stage and later, you may also experience "microsleeps" — falling asleep for just a few seconds, no matter what you are doing.[1]

At 50 to 55 hours

After 50 hours without sleep, studies show that emotional intelligence suffers and you may become less empathetic or positive. You may also become more superstitious, experience intense frustration and aggression, or may feel anxious, depressed, or manic.[1]

At 72 hours

After 72 hours without sleep, serious problems with concentration and motivation occur. In lab animals, more than 72 hours of sleep loss changes how corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) gets distributed in the brain. It also elevated corticosteroids, noradrenaline, and adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), hormones that indicate higher stress level in the body.[1]

At 90 hours

Some people with greater than 90 hours of no sleep have experienced hallucinations.[1] One small study found that subjects awake this long gained weight during their sleeplessness and had significant decreases in attention span, memory, and grip.[3]

What Causes Sleep Deprivation?

People can become sleep deprived for many different reasons ranging from short-term to chronic. Chronic sleep deprivation is when you are unable to get a full night's rest over multiple nights. Here are some common reasons that people experience sleep deprivation:

Temporary Sleep Disruptors

Jet lag, indigestion, or being sick can prevent you from getting a good night's sleep. Normal sleep patterns usually return after the issue passes.

Pain

According to a National Sleep Foundation survey, people who reported chronic pain in the past week averaged a 42-minute sleep debt while those with acute, or short-term, pain experienced a 14-minute sleep debt.[4]

Sleep Disorders

Medical conditions including restless leg syndrome, narcolepsy, and sleep apnea can reduce the amount of time a person sleeps, leading to chronic sleep deprivation. Addressing the underlying conditions can often lead to longer and better sleep.

Insomnia

Defined as a condition where a person is unable to fall asleep, stay asleep, or both, insomnia can result in short-term and chronic sleep deprivation. Having an overactive mind that is thinking about too many things can prevent sleep, and insomnia may increase with age. Engaging in meditation, aromatherapy, and other relaxing behaviors before bed can help.[5]

Mood Issues

A lack of sleep can lower your mood. At least a third of people with insomnia — a common cause of sleep deprivation — have mental health problems or psychiatric illness such as depression, anxiety disorders, or schizophrenia.[6]

Shift Work

Working at odd hours, particularly at night, can also contribute to sleep deprivation. "Shift work disorder" occurs when the body has trouble adjusting to a work schedule that takes place during a time when most people sleep, resulting in shorter periods of sleep.

Discounting the Importance of Sleep

A common reason that people are sleep-deprived is that they don't make sleep a priority. According to the 2018 annual survey by the National Sleep Foundation, only 10 percent of Americans prioritize their sleep over other aspects of daily living, including exercise, nutrition, work, social life, and personal interests.[7]

Symptoms of Sleep Deprivation

Not everyone experiences the same symptoms when sleep deprived, and you may experience just one or several of these. Some examples of possible sleep deprivation symptoms include being excessively tired, lacking motivation and energy, being unable to wake up after sleeping, and feeling sleepy during your normal waking hours. As the number of hours of sleep-deprivation continues, symptoms get progressively worse.

Symptoms of the early stages of sleep deprivation include:

  • Fatigue
  • Daytime sleepiness
  • Lack of motivation
  • Lack of energy
  • Trouble waking up
  • Inability to concentrate or focus attention
  • Forgetfulness
  • Clumsiness
  • Poor performance at physical tasks
  • Reduced alertness and excessive yawning.

Symptoms of more severe and ongoing sleep deprivation include:

  • Mental health disturbances
  • Increased aggressiveness
  • Becoming superstitious
  • Severe decline in memory
  • Drifting off during normal waking hours
  • Feelings of high stress and anxiety

Effects of Sleep Deprivation on Health

A lack of sleep affects both the body and the brain, which is why it's so important to get a full night's sleep — and regularly! The effects that sleep deprivation can have on your health include:

Depressed Immune System

Sleep deprivation affects the body's ability to mount a defense against infections and other illnesses. For example, participants in one study who slept fewer than seven hours a night were three times more likely to catch a cold than those who got eight hours of sleep a night.[8]

Weight Gain

Sleeplessness disrupts the body's endocrine system, which regulates appetite, among other functions. With sleep deprivation, levels of the hormone ghrelin — which makes you feel hunger — increase. Likewise, leptin — a hormone that makes you feel full — decreases. The result? You eat more food. Data from Texas Tech University found that sleeping fewer than seven hours per night doubles the risk of obesity.[9] Catching up on your sleep and maintaining a good sleep schedule can help with weight loss.

Diabetes

Sleep loss causes the central nervous system to become overactive, reducing the pancreas' ability to produce insulin, which controls the body's glucose levels. Over a 15-year period, men who slept five hours a night were twice as likely as those who slept seven hours a night to develop diabetes.[10]

Heart Disease

In one large study, researchers found that women who sleep five or fewer hours a night have a 30 percent greater chance of developing coronary heart disease.[11] Sleep deprivation also raises blood pressure, a major heart disease risk factor.[12]

Cancer

Men under the age of 65 who slept three to five hours a night had a 55 percent greater risk of premature mortality from prostate cancer than those who got seven hours. Men who got six hours had a 29 percent higher risk of fatal prostate cancer.[13]

Premature Death

A nine-year study involving almost 7,000 people found that mortality rates from heart disease, cancer, stroke, and all causes combined were lowest for individuals who slept seven or eight hours per night. Sleeping both less or more than this optimal level increased the risk of death. Men sleeping six or fewer hours, or nine or more hours, per night were 1.7 times more likely to die early than men who slept seven or eight hours per night. Women in the same categories were 1.6 times more likely to die prematurely.[14]

Poor Brain Health

Since sleep clears away neurotoxic waste that accumulates in the central nervous system when we're awake, being sleep deprived decreases your brain's performance, slowing your reaction time and impairing your reasoning skills and memory.[15] It can even make you less creative. Insufficient sleep can also lead to mental health problems like depression and anxiety, social withdrawal, and increased stress.

Natural Remedies for Sleep Deprivation

Getting proper sleep is key to experiencing improved health, increased energy and vitality, and a better mood. If you are having trouble getting adequate sleep, try these natural remedies.

Valerian Tea

Although research on this supplement has shown mixed results with regards to its effectiveness, one study found that among women with sleeping problems related to menopause, one in three got better sleep after drinking valerian tea.[16]

Melatonin

Melatonin is a hormone your body releases when light is absent, but you can take it supplementally. Melatonin helps regulate your body's natural sleep-wake cycle, promoting sleep. In one study, a melatonin supplement decreased the time it took children with insomnia to fall asleep by more than 15 minutes.[17]

Passionflower Tea

In recent research from Australia's Monash University, study subjects who drank a cup of passionflower tea every night reported better sleep quality after a week.[18]

Cherry Juice

A pilot study from Louisiana State University found that cherry juice could be an effective sleep aid. In the study, a small group of insomniacs increased their sleep time by 84 minutes by drinking the juice for two weeks.[19]

Exercise

Working out regularly is not only relaxing, but it can also promote longer sleep. A study of older adults with insomnia found that exercising 150 minutes a week reduced insomnia symptoms after six months.[20]

Relaxation & Meditation

Many types of mind-body techniques can improve your sleep patterns. For instance, in a study of a practice known as mindfulness-based stress reduction, those who received the training, which includes yoga, meditation, relaxation techniques, and sleep education, got about 43 minutes extra minutes of sleep a night compared with those who just kept a sleep diary.[21]

Magnesium

Known as the relaxation mineral, magnesium can help you get a good night’s sleep. Whether you suffer from insomnia or want to get deeper sleep, try taking magnesium supplements before bed. A study on older adults with insomnia found that taking 500 mg per night for eight weeks significantly increased sleep time and sleep efficiency. Not only that, magnesium increased the body’s production of melatonin and decreased cortisol - the stress hormone.[22]

Good Sleep Hygiene

Behavioral changes, such as establishing a regular morning rise time, only going to bed when sleepy, getting out of bed when you're unable to fall asleep and avoiding excessive daytime napping, are important elements of achieving excellent sleep health, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS).[2] The NINDS also suggests avoiding caffeine late in the day and alcoholic beverages at night and creating a relaxing bedtime ritual, such as reading or a taking a warm bath.

Creating a restful sleeping environment may also help you get more. The National Sleep Foundation suggests making the bedroom cool, dark and quiet, and consider infusing it with a relaxing scent like lavender.[23] Experts also recommend only using the bedroom for sleep or sex.

Points to Remember

Sleep deprivation is extremely common in the U.S. and, on an individual level, has profound consequences on your health and wellbeing. More than just making you feel lousy, insufficient shuteye can also harm your physical and mental health.

Experts recommend adults get seven to nine hours per night, and children nine and a half. After 24 hours of sleep deprivation, you may experience mood swings, irritability, aggression, and a decrease in working memory and attention span. Only 10 percent of Americans prioritize getting a good night sleep despite its importance.

However, there are plenty of proven strategies that can assist you if you can't sleep. Exercise, relaxation techniques, behavioral changes, and certain supplements can all help you get the sleep you need to thrive.

References (23)
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  2. "Brain Basics: Understanding Sleep." National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, National Institutes of Health. Updated 6 Jul. 2018. Accessed 10 Sep. 2018.
  3. Patrick GTW, Gilbert JA. "Studies from the psychological laboratory of the University of Iowa: On the effects of loss of sleep." Psychol Rev. 1970;3(5),469-483.
  4. " 2015 Sleep In America™ Poll Finds Pain A Significant Challenge When It Comes To Americans' Sleep [news release]." National Sleep Foundation. 2 Mar. 2015. Accessed 10 Sep. 2018.
  5. "Insomnia." National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. National Institutes of Health. Accessed 10 Sep. 2018.
  6. "What are the effects of sleep deprivation on the human body?" Cornell Center for Materials Research. Updated 2010. Accessed 10 Sep. 2018.
  7. "National Sleep Foundation's 2018 Sleep In America® Poll Shows Americans Failing To Prioritize Sleep." National Sleep Foundation. 11 Mar. 2018. Accessed 10 Sep. 2018.
  8. Cohen S, et al. "Sleep Habits and Susceptibility to the Common Cold." JAMA Intern Med. 2009;169(1),62-67.
  9. Buscemi D, et al. "Short Sleep Times Predict Obesity in Internal Medicine Clinic Patients." J Clin Sleep Med. 2007;3(7),681–688.
  10. Yaggi HK, et al. "Sleep Duration as a Risk Factor for the Development of Type 2 Diabetes." Diabetes Care. 2006;29(3): 657-661.
  11. "Too much, too little sleep pose health risk in women." Harvard Gazette. 30 Jan. 2003. Accessed 10 Sep. 2018.
  12. Klein T. "Prolonged shortened sleep increases blood pressure at night." Mayo Clinic. 13 Mar. 2015. Accessed 10 Sep. 2018.
  13. "Shorter Sleep Duration Is Associated With Increased Risk of Fatal Prostate Cancer in Younger Men." American Association for Cancer Research. 3 Apr. 2017. Accessed 10 Sep. 2018.
  14. Wingard DL, Berkman LF. "Mortality risk associated with sleeping patterns among adults." Sleep. 1983;6(2),102-7.
  15. Eugene AR, Masiak J. "The Neuroprotective Aspects of Sleep." MEDtube Sci. 2015;3(1),35–40.
  16. Taavoni S, et al. "Effect of valerian on sleep quality in postmenopausal women: a randomized placebo-controlled clinical trial." Menopause. 2011;18(9),951-955.
  17. Bruni O, et al. "Current role of melatonin in pediatric neurology: Clinical recommendations." Eur J Paediatr Neurol. 2015;19(2),122-33.
  18. Ngan A, Conduit R. "A Double‐blind, Placebo‐controlled Investigation of the Effects of Passiflora incarnata (Passionflower) Herbal Tea on Subjective Sleep Quality." Phytother Res. 2011;25(8),1153-9.
  19. Losso JN, et al. "Pilot Study of the Tart Cherry Juice for the Treatment of Insomnia and Investigation of Mechanisms." Am J Ther. 2018;25(2),e194-e201.
  20. Reed KJ, et al. "Aerobic exercise improves self-reported sleep and quality of life in older adults with insomnia." Sleep Med. 2010; 11(9),934–940.
  21. Ong JC, et al. "A Randomized Controlled Trial of Mindfulness Meditation for Chronic Insomnia." Sleep. 2014 Sep 1;37(9),1553-63.
  22. Abbasi B, et al. "The effect of magnesium supplementation on primary insomnia in elderly: A double-blind placebo-controlled clinical trial." J Res Med Sci. 2012;17(12):1161-9.
  23. "Six Tips to Design the Ideal Bedroom for Sleep." National Sleep Foundation. Accessed 10 Sep. 2018.

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