What happens when we’re sleep deprived?

When we're sleep deprived we suffer from more than just being tired. Learn all the consequences.

Problems from sleep deprivation are seen everywhere. I hear parents say they need more and that their kids need more. Even teens often admit that they don’t get enough. But why is it such a big deal? What problems are really caused by sleep deprivation? There are many! When we’re sleep deprived, it can lead to many problems that are often not attributed to poor sleep. This can include irritability, poor academic performance, accidents, obesity and more.

Last week we discussed why so many tweens and teens get too little sleep.

You’ll have to learn what your real sleep needs are. Too many people think they’re “used to” less than recommended amounts of sleep, so they’re okay. Once you know your needs, learn the problems with sleep deprivation so you can recognize symptoms in yourself.

Next week we’ll talk about how you can get better sleep.

How much sleep is needed?

Sleep experts recommend nine to ten hours for growing tweens and teens, with a minimum of eight and a half hours until the mid-twenties as our brains continue to mature.

Remember that when we’re sick or in a growth spurt, we need more than usual. Listen to your body!

Find your specific need.

You can estimate how much you need by experimenting over a school vacation time. Go to bed when you’re tired at night and wake on your own. Talk to your parents to let them know what you’re doing so they don’t try to wake you too soon.

Initially you will probably need a lot to catch up on sleep debt, but after a few nights of adequate sleep, see how much your body needs regularly. Don’t lay around all day watching tv or playing on your phone. Get moving! If you have too much down time, it can make your body feel tired, even when you’re not.

Count the hours you sleep naturally once your sleep debt is paid. When it’s time for school or other activities, adjust your bedtime to allow for that much sleep. If that’s impossible you’ll have to work with parents, coaches, and teachers to find solutions.

When you fall asleep within 20 minutes of going to bed and wake up without an alarm, you’re probably getting the right amount of sleep. If you fall asleep immediately upon hitting the pillow and always need an alarm to wake up, you’re probably sleep deprived.

Problems of sleep deprivation

Hormone changes

Sleep deprivation can lead to increased levels of cortisol (a stress hormone), decreased activity of human growth hormone (which is active during tissue repair), and decreased glycogen synthesis (energy). Hormones that regulate appetite are affected by sleep duration. Sleep also influences the release of insulin, which is important in our sugar metabolism

These hormone changes are all implicated in the sleep problems we recognize, and we’re still learning more effects.

Moodiness

We all associate the teen years with angst, so we can easily attribute a teen’s moodiness to just being a teen. But being chronically tired can lead to emotional dysregulation. This will look like irritability, frustration and anger.

Chronic sleep deprivation is associated with developing depression. Depression affects our ability to sleep well and poor sleep can increase the risk of depression, so it can have a snowball effect.

Growth

Growth hormone is released as we sleep. Chronic sleep deprivation can affect your overall height if you don’t get enough sleep during your rapid growth tween and teen years.

Growth hormone isn’t just needed for growing. It also stimulates muscle growth, muscle repair, bone building and fat burning. Sleep loss may affect healing time and weight due to less growth hormone.

Obesity

Obesity has been associated with sleep deprivation. Specific appetite hormones are altered by sleep. Our appetite can be increased when we fail to get enough sleep.

Sleep deprivation can lead to eating more calories than needed because of increased appetite. This increases the risk of obesity and all the health consequences of being overweight.

Diabetes

Sugar metabolism is directly affected by sleep. People who don’t get enough sleep are at increased risk of Type 2 diabetes from this direct effect as well as from carrying excess weight.

School problems

Getting proper amounts of sleep can help with focus and learning. When we fail to get enough sleep, problems with attention, memory, decision making, reaction time, and creativity start to show. As if ADHD wasn’t enough to cause these things – sleep deprivation compounds the issue!

Grades can easily fall, which leads to anxiety and depression, which in turn leads to more moodiness and trouble sleeping.

Sleep deprivation mimics ADHD. If you think the medicine to help your ADHD that’s worked for years suddenly isn’t working, think about your sleep needs and amounts. Increasing the medicine isn’t the answer!

Injuries

Teens with chronic sleep deprivation are more likely to be accidentally injured due to poor focus and slowed reaction time. Sleep deprivation also slows healing after injury.

Drowsy driving is comparable to drunk driving. Tired teens are at high risk for falling asleep at the wheel. Drowsy driving is the most likely to occur in the middle of the night (2-4 am), but also in mid-afternoon (3- 4pm) as teens drive home from school.

Athletes are more likely to be injured while playing their sport, so it is in the best interest of the team to get enough sleep. And yes, I know with the busy practice schedule and homework it’s hard. But athletes need sleep.

Sports Performance

It’s not just injuries that increase among sleep deprived athletes. Performance also falls when we fail to get sleep.

Less sleep increases fatigue, lowers energy, and leads to poor focus. It may also slow recovery as mentioned above.

In short, sleep helps your sports performance.

Study of 18-27 year old males

Eve Van Cauter, Ph.D., from the University of Chicago Medical School, studied the effects of three different durations of sleep in eleven 18-27 year old men. For the first 3 nights of the study, the men slept 8 hours per night. Over the next 6 nights, they slept 4 hours per night. For the last 7 nights, they slept 12 hours per night.

After 4 hours of sleep per night, participants metabolized glucose least efficiently. Levels of cortisol were also higher during sleep deprivation periods. This can lead to memory impairment, insulin resistance, and impaired recovery.

After only 1 week of sleep restriction the previously young, healthy males had glucose levels that were no longer normal. They showed a  reduced ability to manage glucose, similar to the way elderly people metabolize it.

Study of female university athletes

Cheri Mah of the Stanford Sleep Disorders Clinic and Research Laboratory has studied college level athletes for many years. Her research shows that getting more sleep leads to better sports performance for all types of athletes.

One study of the Stanford University women’s tennis team focused on increasing sleep to 10 hours per night. Those who increased their sleep time ran faster sprints and hit more accurate tennis shots than while getting their usual amount of sleep.

Illnesses

Too little sleep increases the risk of getting sick. Your immune system needs sleep to perform at its best.

Risky behaviors

Teens with chronic sleep deprivation have been shown to participate in more risk taking behaviors. These behaviors, such as driving without a seatbelt, drinking alcohol, skipping the bike helmet and tobacco use, add to the problems of sleep deprivation.

Next Up:

Now that you understand the many problems with sleep deprivation, come back next week to learn how to get more sleep.

Author: Kristen

Dr. Kristen Stuppy is a pediatrician who is passionate about sharing information to help others make informed decisions. She has a special interest in ADHD and has served on the board for ADHDKC.org since it began in 2012.

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