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What Happens When You Are Sleep Deprived

Do you wake up feeling tired and need coffee or something sweet to get through the day? A sleep-medicine specialist explains the effects of sleep deprivation and more.

By Ameya Arora
18 Apr 2022

Sleep is one of the most vital functions of everyday life, but do you think that sleeping late each night has become a way of life for you? You may not have planned to do so, but you may find yourself binge-watching your favorite series for two or three nights a week. On other nights you may catch up with your friend on a video call or step out for a night out, or even stay up late to finish pending work.. And before you know it, a pattern of sleep deficit has been set.


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In a recent interview with People magazine, Jeniffer Aniston opens up about her struggle with sleep deprivation. She shares “You can’t exercise and you can’t really eat right if you haven’t slept well because your body clock is so completely thrown off”. Jennifer also highlighted how she saw the effects of lack of sleep during her day, her work, and on her mind and physique.


Dr. M.S. Kanwar, a Senior Consultant and Advisor Pulmonary, Critical Care and founder of Sleep Medicine, Indraprastha Apollo Hospitals talks about these effects in great detail as we will see shortly.


You may not even realise how often you reach for caffeine or sugar to feel energised throughout the day. Getting adequate sleep each night is a vital component to live a healthy life that's full of energy. When you sleep, you give your body time to rejuvenate and heal. When you sleep soundly, your brain works to maintain the pathways that help you in learning and memorising new stuff. Sound sleep also allows nerve cells (neurons) to communicate better with each other. “When our sleep is disrupted or inadequate, our mental, emotional, and physical health suffer,” says Dr. M.S. Kanwar.


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According to Dr. Kanwar, if you have difficulty falling to sleep, or you wake up easily with the slightest disturbances, or if you’re sleeping for 6 hours or less, you might be developing chronic sleep deprivation. Sleep deprivation occurs when you don’t get sufficient sleep that your body requires at night, and your sleep cycle gets disrupted. Adults typically need a good seven-hour sleep, but this may not be happening for everyone.


If you are deprived of sleep, you might feel drowsy, irritated, inactive, impatient, and have difficulty concentrating or responding quickly. You might take longer to execute simple actions, and poor sleep may affect your ability to make decisions. Let’s look at more such effects of sleep deprivation in detail.


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The Toll Of Sleep Deprivation

As a result of sleep deprivation, you may be able to notice the following symptoms, says Dr. Kanwar.


Impact of Poor Sleep on Cognitive Functions

  • Slowed Thought Process

“When you’re sleep-deprived, your thought processes slow down leading to lower alertness and concentration,” says Dr. Kanwar. You may have difficulty paying attention, and hence, you’re more easily confused. It also hampers your ability to reason logically and think critically, leading to difficulty in performing complex tasks. Moreover, making decisions becomes difficult as you can’t respond effectively to the situation.


  • Impaired Memory

When we sleep, the nerve connections that sustain our memories are strengthened. sleep may interfere with this process and memories may not get formed properly. Furthermore, if you're sleepy during the day because you didn’t sleep well last night, you may not pay full attention to things around you or you may forget the events that took place very easily. This again results in weak memory. “If you’re unable to concentrate on the things around you, those things will not make it to your short-term memory and the long-term memory,” says Dr. Kanwar.


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  • Difficult In Learning

Your learning is affected by being sleep deprived in at least two ways. Firstly, if you can’t concentrate well and your thought process is slowed down, it is very common that it is difficult for you to pick information that helps in learning. Secondly, as sleep deprivation affects memory, which is essential to learning, both get hampered. In children, they may feel hyperactive because of being sleep deprived, making it difficult to learn. They may lose their focus and memory capacity to perform well in school.


  • Slowed Reaction Time

There are various tasks such as driving that require a quick reaction. Sleepiness can make your reaction time slower because you may be feeling drowsy or tired.


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  • Mood fluctuations

If you are sleep-deprived, you might feel anxious, stressed, irritated, and angry. Dr. Kanwar says that a lack of sleep can significantly alter your mood, resulting in mood swings. He says that chronic sleep deprivation can lead to depression or other stress disorders.


Impact of Poor Sleep on Digestive Function

If you don’t get adequate sleep, your hormones may become unbalanced. This can cause problems such as bloating, inflammation, obesity etc. Sometimes, you might have experienced that when you haven’t slept well, you may be feeling more hungry. That is because lack of sleep can increase the hunger hormone ghrelin that stimulates appetite and plays a role in the storage of fat. As a result, you resort to unhealthy choices of food to quench your hunger, giving rise to another set of health issues.


In the long run, this may be negatively impacting your gut health. Another angle to look at this impact is this: Doctors say that you should have your last meal at least 2 hours before going to bed. Eating a heavy meal, close to bedtime can hamper quality sleep.


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Impact of Poor Sleep on Reproductive Function

A 2020 study published in the Journal Of Circadian Rhythms shows that getting proper sleep at night regulates the hormones in our body, including fertility related hormones. Did you know that the hormones responsible for the sleep-wake cycle are also responsible for releasing reproductive hormones? There might be a connection between hormones regulating your sleep-wake cycle and the hormones triggering ovulation and sperm maturation. There may also be a connection between working late or working different shifts and infertility or miscarriage.


Impact of Poor Sleep on Respiratory Function

There is a direct connection between sleep and lung function. While respiratory problems may affect the quality of sleep, lack of sleep may also lead to lung problems, found a study in Lung India, a publication of Indian Chest Society., When your sleep is disturbed, cardiac and respiratory functions become unstable. Dr. Kanwar says that if a person has difficulty breathing at night it may reduce lung function, making it harder to inhale and exhale.


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Impact of Poor Sleep on Cardiac Function

Insufficient or disturbed sleep can contribute to problems with blood pressure, and also heighten the risk of heart diseases, strokes, heart attacks. It may also lead to hypertension and diabetes. A 2019 study in the Journal of Sleep Research found that people who work long hours in high-stress jobs are more likely to have high blood pressure during the day after getting improper sleep last night.






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