We've probably all experienced sleep deprivation at least a few times in our lives, especially during stressful periods like final exams or heavy work weeks. It's important, however, to know the signs of chronic sleep deprivation, because continually not getting enough shut-eye can have a huge impact on your health — mentally, emotionally, and physically. Research shows that between 50 and 70 million Americans suffer from chronic sleep loss and sleep impairments, as well as that the long-term impact of it can be devastating: Over time, consistent sleep loss can contribute to the likelihood that you develop increased risk of hypertension, diabetes, depression, heart attack, and stroke. So knowing when it's just a few sleepless nights versus an ongoing problem? Well, let's just say that your future depends on it — literally.
Even in the short term, it's important to be on the lookout for potential side effects and symptoms of chronic lack of sleep. While I'm willing to bet we've all pulled the occasional all-nighter in our time, it's good to keep in mind that chronic sleep deprivation is not the same as occasional sleeplessness. Chronic sleep deprivation happens when you regularly get five or less hours of sleep per night, whether it's because of commitments, stress, insomnia, or other factors. When you experience too little sleep on a regular basis, your body and brain have significantly less time to repair themselves, and that can be super dangerous for your long- and short-term health and happiness.
While certainly not exhaustive, the list below is a great place to start if you think you're experiencing chronic sleep deprivation. Sleep is serious business, so if you're worried about whether you're getting enough of it, definitely don't hesitate to get a medical opinion.
1. Your Memory Is Shot
When I'm low on sleep, my memory is always the first thing to go. This feels especially frustrating when I'm staying up late because I'm prepping for a big exam or major project at work, only to arrive feeling exhausted and unfocused. Studies show that when you don't get enough sleep, your short- and long-term memory can both suffer, which is pretty scary stuff. For instance, Elizabeth Devore, an instructor in medicine at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Mass. conducted research on loss of sleep and long-term memory and found that simply getting the average amount of sleep — about seven hours, which is on the low end of the seven to nine hours of sleep recommended for adults by the National Sleep Foundation — "may help maintain memory in later life."
2. Your Skin Is Breaking Out
Skin issues can be frustrating no matter what their cause, but when you're already feeling exhausted, dealing with skin problems is just that much worse. Sleep is so important when it comes to keeping your skin healthy, because a lot of the repair your body does to your skin happens when you're asleep. This means that if you consistently go on too little sleep, your skin may begin to break out and lose its natural glow. Your skin also produces collagen when you're asleep, which is responsible for its elasticity.
3. You're Always Hungry
"When you're not sleeping properly, you tend to eat more of what you're craving because you're not feeling the signals to stop eating," Chris Winter, MD, of Virginia's Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Medicine, explained to Health.com. This happens because when you're running low on rest, your body may produce more ghrelin, the hormone that's in control of your hunger.
4. You Have Trouble Making Decisions
Even when I'm simply running low on sleep, as opposed to being actually sleep deprived, I have a super hard time making decisions. But this isn't unusual; In fact, for example, in a 2009 study published in the journal Sleep, researchers discovered that poor sleep hinders your ability to react quickly across the board. Researchers asked people who were sleep-deprived and people who were well-rested to perform tasks that required decision-making on two separate occasions, and discovered that the subjects who had gotten little sleep were 2.4 percent less accurate than the well-rested group.
5. You're Experiencing Micro-Sleep
Microsleep is pretty scary stuff,and if you're experiencing it, it should not be taken lightly. As David Dinges explained to Live Science, "during microsleeps, the brain goes into a sleep state rapidly and uncontrollably," essentially causing you to fall asleep for short bursts of time, seemingly out of nowhere. These microsleeps sometimes last for only thirty seconds, and it's possible your eyes even stay open during them. Even if you look awake, however, your brain stops processing information and you're essentially blind. If this sounds familiar to you, don't hesitate to talk to a medical professional about your sleep.
So, there you have it! Remember, sleep is so important to your health and should always be a priority, even when life gets busy or stressful. If you're experiencing chronic sleep issues, don't hesitate to talk to a medical professional about your concerns. Your health and happiness are always, always worth it.
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