According to experts, healthy adults need between seven and nine hours of sleep per night. But studies have shown that nearly 30% of Americans are getting six hours of sleep or less.
If that sounds like you, you might not just be dragging through your day. You could be legitimately sleep deprived. Which is a bit more serious.
We already know that unhealthy sleep patterns can disrupt your immune system, concentration levels, and gut health. But could your lack of sleep be doing even more than that?
The Difference Between “Fatigued” and “Sleep Deprived”
While everyone can feel tired or worn out from time to time, experts agree that sleep deprivation isn’t all that easy to snap out of or bounce back from.
“Chronic sleep deprivation is what happens when people consistently get less than the recommended seven to eight hours of sleep per night. It adds up over time, and it takes more than one night or a good weekend of sleep to catch up,” says Alex Dimitriu, M.D., a double board-certified doctor in psychiatry and sleep medicine.
So how do you know if you’re actually sleep deprived, or just feeling a little run down?
“The easiest way to tell if you are sleep deprived is to ask yourself if you could fall asleep at any point during the day,” says Dr. Dimitriu.
“Fatigue is being tired and unmotivated. Sleepiness means wanting to sleep,” he continues. “Would you be able to fall asleep right now, if given the opportunity to do so? Sleep-deprived people have trouble staying awake, especially in the afternoon and often in the later parts of the evening. Oh, and they also often fall asleep within seconds of hitting the pillow.”
Signs and Symptoms of Sleep Deprivation
Sleep deprivation can be caused by several factors, like age, certain medications, high levels of stress, or underlying medical conditions.
They could also indicate an undiagnosed sleep disorder, like insomnia, sleep apnea, narcolepsy, or restless leg syndrome–all of which warrant a conversation with a medical professional.
But how do you know you have it? There are several tell-tale symptoms you should be on the lookout for. Like excessive yawning, excessive sleepiness, irritability or depressed moods, increased anxiety, inability to focus, dependence on caffeine, or weight gain.
Several of these symptoms could be experienced if you just have a bad week and lose some sleep for a few nights in a row. But generally, if you’re experiencing several of them for an extended period of time, that’s a sign that you’ve got some chronic, ongoing sleep-deprivation.
“Chronic sleep deprivation can even affect an individual’s appearance,” says Wayne Leslie Ross, a senior sleep researcher. Studies have shown that sleep deprivation can disrupt the brain’s regulation of appetite and energy levels, causing them to reach for starchy, salty, or fatty foods.
It can also cause people to rely on more and more caffeine to get them through the day, which can end up doing more harm than good.
So How Do You Combat Sleep Deprivation?
Telling someone to “get more sleep” isn’t as easy as it sounds, especially if there are underlying issues. But even if you’re seeking treatment from a medical professional, there are several things you can do at home that could help you get back on the right track.
For one, make sure your body gets the signal that it’s time to wind down for the night. Try to avoid caffeine, alcohol, or large meals four hours before bed. No exercise for two hours before. And avoid drinking water too close to bedtime, too.
Limit screen time well in advance (yes, that includes your phone.) Take a warm bath shortly before, and read a little bit from a real book or magazine. Diffuse some lavender or cedarwood essential oil by your bedside. And sleep in a cool, dark, quiet room.
It may take a while to adjust to the new routine, but soon you could be on your way to getting that blissful seven to eight hours a night.