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Editorial
6 Essential Steps to Take If You Suffer from Chronic Sleep Deprivation
AdobeStock
Laura Berlinsky-Schine
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No one can deny that waking up from a long night of restful, uninterrupted sleep can brighten your mood and make you feel energized for the coming day. But for some people, sleep is an elusive white whale. No matter how hard you try, you just can't get to sleep—to the point at which it's becoming a chronic problem. Or perhaps you feel tired and could really use the sleep, but something is preventing it from happening. If you are someone dealing with chronic sleep deprivation, it can feel frustrating to try to fall asleep, only to stare at the clock for hours on end, or stay asleep for a full night.

What is chronic sleep deprivation?

Sleep deprivation is a condition in which people do not get sufficient sleep. Adults need different amounts of sleep, depending on a number of factors, such as age and simple different body makeups. When they do not get the amount of sleep they personally require, some functions may be impaired, and health probems may occur. 

Acute sleep deprivation refers to one or a handful of sleep-impaired nights. It's not uncommon for adults to experience occasional acute sleep deprivation at least a few times over the course of their lives, and they are unlikely to suffer long-term side effects from it. Chronic sleep deprivation, on the other hand, refers to a longer period of impaired sleep—weeks, months, or even years. People who experience this condition are more likely to suffer long-term side effects.

How much sleep do you need?

It's common knowledge that most adults need between 7-9 hours of sleep per night. Unfortunately, many women—around 60%—aren't getting it, according to Harvard Women's Health Watch. While it may not seem like a big deal, sleep is extremely important. In fact, you will literally die without it. Dealing with a lack of sleep or low-quality sleep doesn't just make you feel tired and sluggish during the day; it also impacts your day-to-day physical and mental life.

What are the health risks of lack of sleep?

Chronic sleep deprivation can take a serious toll on both your mental and physical health. In addition to feeling foggy and generally off from poor sleep patterns, lack of sleep can have more serious consequences, including:

• Memory loss and cognitive impairment
• Weight gain and obesity
• Increased risk for diabetes, heart disease, cardiovascular disease and stroke
• Injury
• Lower overall quality of life
• Increased risk of heart attack, depression and other psychological illnesses, ADHD, and mental impairment

According to WebMD, sleep problems and decreased sleep time pose an increased risk of mortality.

It may come as a shock that lack of sleep can have such an impact on your overall health and well-being. The good news is that there are many natural remedies to increase your sleep time and improve your overall sleep patterns.

What are strategies for helping sleep-deprived people sleep better?

1. Avoid bright lights at night, but use them during the day.

Bright light is important for regulating your body's circadian rhythm. Circadian rhythm processes including sleep and wakefulness. Light exposure can help regulate it and allow you stay awake longer. In fact, some people suffer from conditions beyond poor sleep, including seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which primarily occurs in winter, when there is less exposure to natural light.

A light box or overhead bright can be somewhat effective in resoring your circadian rhythm. However, be careful to control exposure to bright lights at night. This includes watching TV, using your laptop, or checking your phone. Doing so can interfere with your ability to fall asleep. You should also hide your clock, if you have one with bright, sleep-distrupting numbers!

2. Exercise more.

Just a few minutes of daily exercise has amazing resorative benefits for your health and well-being, including helping you fall asleep and stay asleep longer. Exercise can provide an enormous boost in the sleep deprived and will help you sleep better, too.

Even going for a daily walk or carving out time for five minutes of vigorous exercise, such as sprinting, spinning, or kickboxing, can help you combat insomnia. You should probably aim for a little more than that for optimal results—around 30 minutes, five days per week—but if you're having trouble finding the time, even a short period is beneficial. Plus, it will give you mood boost which is probably much needed, since chronic sleep deprivation is association with psychological conditions like depression.

3. Pay off your sleep debt.

Of course, telling someone who is sleep deprived to sleep more is a bit simplistic. However, if you are dealing with chronic sleep loss that results from factors beyond your control, such as being a new parent, or even if you've had many nights of insufficient sleep, chances are good that you'll be able to sleep well and thoroughly at some point.

Sleep debt is the amount of sleep you are lacking. For instance, if you typically need seven hours of sleep per night, and you've gone a full week averaging five hours per night, your debt is 14 hours. Try to make up for it over the next week, sleeping longer each night, until you return to your normal rhythm.

While banking sleep, or "stocking up" on more hours of sleeping in anticipation of insufficient sleep, was originally thought to be more harmful than helpful, studies conducted by the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research show that it can actually benefit some people. Banking sleep might be useful for people with stressful jobs who anticipate needing all nighters or those who frequently encounter stressful situations, such as military personnel.

4. Practice relaxation exercises.

Some of the effects of sleep deprivation include irritability, anxiety, and stress. Practicing relaxation exercises, such as deep breathing, meditation, or muscle tensing, can help calm you. These exercises no only help counter the effects of sleep deprivation, but will also help you improve your sleep quality.

If you are having trouble getting started with mindfulness and meditation, there are some great apps that can guide you through the process, including:

• Calm

• Pacifica

• Headspace

• The Mindfulness App

• Stop, Breath & Think

You can also use apps to learn breathing exercises and develop anxiety-fighting strategies, which can also help you sleep better. Try apps like Breathe2Relax, Worry Watch, and Inner Balance.

5. Avoid stimulants.

Caffeine, alcohol, and tobacco are known to negatively effect sleep quality, particularly if you use them at night. Using them to excess during the day can also interfere with falling asleep and staying asleep. Try to avoid injesting these substances except in reduced quantities, particularly at night. It's best to stop your caffeine intake at least six hours before bedtime or even earlier if you have it multiple times per day. You should stop drinking alcohol at least two hours before you want to go to sleep. Note that alcohol will make you feel sleepy initially, but you'll sleep more fitfully and be more prone to snoring, which also interferes with your sleep quality.

Something else to avoid is eating heavy meals too close to bed. Your body needs time to digest, and digestion can interfere with your ability to fall asleep.

6. Create a space that induces rest.

Your bedroom should be a cool, dark space with a comfortable bed and pillows. Since noise can interfere with your ability to sleep well, consider listening to relaxing music or investing in a white noise machine, particuarly if you live on a busy or noisy street or corner. Some tips for creating a peaceful space for rest include:

• Painting your room a soothing shade, such as pale blue

• Spraying calming scents like lavender

• Using soft lighting for waking hours

• Hiding bright lights from a clock or computer

• Investing in comfortable bedding

• Keeping the temperature a cool 60-67 degrees (according to Sleep.org)

Avoid using your bed for anything besides sleep and sex. If you restrict it to just these activities, your brain will identify and associate it with restfulness, which is important for good sleep hygiene.

A Final Word of Advice

If you are dealing with chronic sleep loss that is seriously impacting your health and overall quality of life, it's time to see a health professional. This is also true of people who suffer from total sleep deprivation, meaning they've dealt with extreme insomnia on multiple occasions and can't address their sleep problems through DIY remedies. You may be suffering from one or more sleep disorders. A medical professional will help you figure out why you have difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep and can come up with an appropriate course of treatment.

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