How sleep deprivation affects our mental health, physical health and overall wellbeing.
No one can deny the importance of a good night's sleep when it comes to maintaining good mental and physical health. Restful sleep is vital for maintaining effective cognitive performance, boosting our body’s immune system and preserving our emotional wellbeing.
Whilst numbers of hours vary from person to person, the NHS recommends that adults should aim to get around 8 hours of quality sleep each night. Yet despite this, a staggering number of us still aren't getting enough sleep. A 2021 survey by YoGov found that 58% of British adults slept fewer than seven hours per night, with one in five adults reporting that they struggled to fall asleep every single night.
With the country on the verge of a sleep crisis, it comes as no surprise that searches for medicinal sleep treatments are on the rise. According to research conducted by Beds Divans, online searches for melatonin treatments have increased by 35% in the last two years, with an average of 107K searches each month. Worryingly, these numbers don’t appear to be slowing down either. The big question is, why are so many of us not getting enough sleep?
Causes of sleeplessness
Put simply, sleep deprivation arises after a continuous lack of sleep or poor quality of sleep. Anxiety and stress are frequently cited as the most common causes of insomnia and unfortunately for us, stress levels in the UK are on the rise at an alarming rate. A 2020 workplace stress survey by Perkbox revealed that 79% of British adults admitted to experiencing work-related stress, compared to 59% in 2018. Is the UK on the brink of a stress induced insomnia epidemic? Quite possibly.
Stress and anxiety aren’t the only factors which lead to sleeplessness. Here are other common causes of chronic insomnia or sleeplessness:
- Disruptive sleeping environments, such as noisy and overly rooms or an uncomfortable bed
- Mental health disorders, such as depression or post-traumatic stress disorder
- Pre-existing medical conditions, such as chronic pain disorders or diabetes
- Pre-existing sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea or restless leg syndrome
- The use of medications
- An inconsistent sleeping pattern
- The consumption of alcohol, drugs, caffeine or nicotine
- Eating too much food late in the evening
The dangers of sleeplessness
For decades, scientists have studied the relationship between sleep deprivation impact on cognitive performance and their findings should concern us all. Below are some of the negative impacts that prolonged sleep deprivation can have on the mind and body.
Loss of memory and concentration
A lack of sleep can impair judgement and slow down your thought process, making it more difficult to focus on tasks which require deep and complex thought. A journal published by the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine found that disturbed sleep and insomnia were heavily associated with decreased job performance, lower morale and decreased workplace productivity. Sleep deprivation is not only costly to our productivity, it’s also costly on our economy. Data from a 2016 study by the RAND corporation found that a lack of sleep could have cost the UK economy a whopping £40 billion a year.
Slower reaction time
Studies have shown that sleep deprivation over a prolonged period of time can lead to the impairment of cognitive and motor functions, which slows down a person’s reaction time, the effects of which are similar to those exhibited by a drunk person. What’s more, results from a 2018 study published by BMC Medicine found that driving with less than 6 hours of sleep increases the risk of a car accident by 33%. Perhaps it’s time to think twice before making that long road trip after a restless night’s sleep?
While having regular sleep disturbances does not always lead to depression, there are numerous studies which link sustained wakefulness with changes in neurobehavioral functions that can result in symptoms commonly linked with depression. A lack of sleep for a prolonged period can lead to an increase in irritability, feelings of sadness or hopelessness and lower levels of motivation, and all of which are symptoms of depression.
Other negative effects of sleep deprivation include:
- Memory loss
- Greater a risk of heart disease and high blood pressure
- Decrease in sex drive
- Loss in motivation and productivity
Treatment for sleep deprivation
Sadly, there is no one quick fix to completely eradicate sleeplessness. However, there are several habits and lifestyle changes that you can adopt to help improve your sleep quality.
- Reduce exposure to screens (laptops, phones and TV) two hours before bed
- Daily exercise, in the form of walking or yoga can help lower levels of stress
- Refrain from consuming caffeine after 2pm
- Install black out curtains in your bedroom
- Try meditation, reading or journaling before bed
- Ensure your bedroom is at a cool temperature
- Take a warm bath or shower before bed
- Wear ear plugs and a sleeping mask in bed