Whether from sleep disorders, shift work, or parenting, millions worldwide are being robbed of the simple restorative powers of good sleep. Though it may seem trivial at first, sleep deprivation effects can end careers, ruin marriages, and cause accidents. Once thought to be a minor concern, sleep disorders are real health issues that warrant attention and treatment.
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Sleep Deprivation Effects
Since the advent of electric lights, people have been progressively getting less good sleep. Not just a small-scale problem, sleep deprivation has been shown to have a number of serious public implications. According to Sleep Disorders and Sleep Deprivation: An Unmet Public Health Problem by Colten and Altevogt (National Academies Press, 2006,) up to 20% of all serious car accidents can be attributed to sleep deprivation. Additionally, the Bhopal, India disaster, the nuclear meltdowns at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, as well as the accidents involving the Star Princess cruise ship and the Exxon Valdez can all be attributed, at least in part, to sleep deprivation effects.
Of course, there are personal implications as well. Individuals experiencing sleep deprivation may suffer from any or all of the following:
- impaired alertness and decreased cognitive performance
- mood disruption, including increases in depression, aggression, and substance abuse
- lowered complexity of brain activity
- impaired glucose tolerance, increased risk of diabetes
- increased blood pressure and heart palpitations
- memory loss and impaired working memory
- irritability and impaired judgment
Sleep Disorders That Cause Sleep Deprivation
According to Santrock and Mittener (Psychology, McGraw-Hill Ryerson) 40% of adults, on average, will experience a sleep disorder at some point in their lifetime. Put another way, at least 40 million Americans are suffering from chronic, long-term sleep disorders and another 20 million have experienced occasional sleep disturbances. The following are among the more common sleep disorders that can result in sleep deprivation:
- Insomnia: Defined as the inability to sleep, insomnia may affect as many as one-third of the adult population, most notably women, the elderly, and those who are thin, depressed, or under stress.
- Sleep apnea: A sleep disorder in which, by either mechanical or neurological means, the individual stops breathing repeatedly throughout the night, resulting in frequent night-waking.
- Restless Leg Syndrome: Occurring in varying degrees of severity, this is a disorder characterized by the irresistible urge to move one’s limbs, usually the legs. While not a sleep disorder in the strict sense, it frequently results in loss of sleep for the affected individual.
How to Sleep Better
The first step to sleeping better is to learn why sleep has been impaired. For new parents or night shift workers, the cause may be obvious. For others, however, it may be more elusive. Often, a sleep study will provide the necessary answers.
A sleep study usually involves spending the night at a sleep clinic, during which time vital functions and brain waves will be closely monitored. Depending on the results of the sleep study, further treatment may include medication, behavioral therapy, or lifestyle changes. In the case of sleep apnea, medication will often be prescribed in conjunction with a specialized breathing apparatus to end nocturnal breathing disruption.
A Lifetime of Good Sleep
Over the lifespan, there are gradual changes in sleep needs, sleep patterns, and circadian rhythms. However, it is important to pay attention any time there is a significant alteration in the normal course of sleep. Although many like to believe otherwise, sleep is not optional, nor is it a luxury. Good sleep is a basic, fundamental need, as important as food and water, and an absolute requirement for good health.