Sleep Deprivation 101: What You Should Know

Allen Blaivas, M.D. Health Pro
  • In my previous blogs I have written about the importance of good sleep, but I don’t think we ever really explained the significance of sleep deprivation and the effects on society and the individual. I thought that it would be a good idea to go over some significant facts and figures to convince you of the importance of getting a good restful sleep and of the need to address sleep problems with your doctor.

    What is sleep deprivation?

    It is hard to place a number on every person’s sleep need because the amount varies greatly between individuals, but the recommended amount for adults is 7-8 hours per night. Sleep deprivation can obviously occur if you miss an entire night of sleep due to circumstances such as traveling across time zones and pulling an all-nighter at work (or at play). A more common and less recognized form of sleep deficiency is chronic partial sleep deprivation, which accumulates over several days. For example, if a person who requires 8 hours of sleep nightly gets only 7 hours, a one hour sleep debt is created. If this pattern is repeated over the course of a little more than a week, the sleep debt is equal to an entire night of missed sleep!

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    The other type of sleep deprivation is not in the quantity of sleep, but in the quality. People who have disrupted sleep also are sleep deprived (though they might not even be aware of it). Disruptions can be caused by medical and psychiatric diseases or their treatments, as well as by sleep disorders such as sleep apnea.

    Are we all depriving ourselves of sleep?

    For the most part the answer is yes. In their 2002 Sleep in America Poll, the National Sleep Foundation (NSF) reported that on average Americans are sleeping 6.9 hours during the weekdays and 7.5 hours on weekends. In the same poll 37 percent of respondents said that they were so sleepy that it interfered with their daily activity a few days a month. Additionally, almost 50 percent felt that it was normal to be so sleepy in the mid-afternoon, and that it is hard to stay awake (it shouldn't be!).

    What are the effects of sleep deprivation?

    In animals the complete absence of sleep can cause death in a few days. For obvious reasons the same methods have not been studied in humans, but we do know that there are consequences. The most apparent is excessive sleepiness. Studies have shown that sleep deprivation can significantly impair one’s ability to perform tasks both physically and mentally, as well as cause memory deficits. Interestingly, the deficits seem to worsen as sleep shortage was increased, so there is no minimum level that is reached, beyond which there is no further effect of sleep deprivation.

    The majority of studies suggest that mood is more affected by sleep deficit than the ability to perform tasks. In the NSF poll noted above, those who reported getting enough sleep to not feel tired noted higher mood scores. In fact, the poll suggested that the longer people sleep on weekdays and the less frequently people experience excessive daytime sleepiness, the more likely they were to have a positive mood and attitude score.


  • More to come on this topic in upcoming blogs, so stay tuned.

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    Also consider registering for the NSF Great American sleep Challenge from February 5- March 31, 2007. Check out their website for more information.

Published On: February 18, 2009