Do Not Deprive Me of Life, Liberty or Sleep!

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Do Not Deprive Me of Life, Liberty or Sleep!

It has been well established that to function at our best it is important to have adequate sleep time and for adults this appears to be between 7-9 hours. What happens to us when we do not get adequate sleep? Studies have demonstrated that there is a decrease in glucose metabolism in the brain during sleep deprivation. In addition, changes in EEG recordings can be seen, and functional MRI scans have demonstrated changes in levels of activation in various regions of the brain.1

There are several ways one develops sleep deprivation. There are acute episodes where sleep is forgone completely vs. where less than adequate sleep is obtained nightly, resulting in chronic sleep deprivation. Sleep deprivation can develop also when we think we are getting adequate hours but our sleep is fragmented such as seen in sleep apnea. Consequently, the levels of sleep deprivation can vary widely.

Interestingly, in total sleep deprivation studies in rats, it can actually result in the animal’s death. Fortunately, there is no evidence at all that this is the case in humans.

In humans, sleep deprivation can lead to an increase in appetite, negative effects on mood, cause cognitive impairment, a decrease in motor skills, and intrusion of micro-sleeps while trying to maintain wakefulness. There is some data to suggest that sleep deprivation can decrease the immune response, and possibly affect mortality, but further studies are needed.

Sleep deprivation can adversely affect our ability to operate motor vehicles safely. Multiple studies demonstrate the relationship between sleep deficit and motor vehicle accidents. The impairment in the ability to drive safely under significant levels of sleep deprivation is equivalent to the impairment caused by being legally drunk.

Its important to recognize that deleterious effects from sleep deprivation can be highly individualized. There are individuals who appear to be much more susceptible to demonstrating problems with sleep deprivation compared to others. It’s unclear why this is the case, and speculation questions genetic differences as the cause. Also, certain activities can override various levels of sleep deprivation. Placed in an active environment versus a less stimulating one can at times modulate the problems from sleep deprivation. For example, sleep deprivation may cause one to fall asleep easily at a movie, while the same individual would have little difficulty staying awake while talking on the phone. However, if at some point sleep loss is so great, little can prevent one from performing poorly or even falling asleep.

It is clear that sleep deprivation can cause significant problems, and it is further suspected that additional research will only strengthen the importance of obtaining adequate sleep. It has long been taught that the keys to a long healthy life were simple: don’t smoke, do not drink in excess, exercise and choose one’s parents wisely. Its time to add another key: make sure to get adequate sleep.

  1. Neurocognitive Consequences of Sleep Deprivation
    Jeffrey S. Durmer, M.D., Ph.D.,1 and David F. Dinges, Ph.D.2. Seminars in Neurology,
    Volume 25, Number 1, 2005.