Could you stay awake for 11 days? In 1965, Randy Gardner, a 17-year old high school student stayed awake for 11 days and 24 minutes or 264.4 hours, to study the effects of sleep deprivation. This is the longest documented case of intentional sleep deprivation without stimulants. After just 2 days, Randy struggled to remain focused and found it difficult to identify objects through touch. On day three, he showed signs of moodiness, incoordination and hallucinations. Things went down hill from there. Randy became paranoid and irritable, with trouble concentrating and forming short-term memories. By the final day, Randy had slurred speech, no facial expressions; very short attention span and diminished mental abilities. In fact, the physical and mental effects of Randy’s sleep deprivation test were so extreme and dangerous, that the Guinness Book of Records has stopped listing voluntary sleep deprivation. (3)
While Randy’s experiment is an extreme example, sleep deprivation, insomnia and other sleep disorders are at epidemic proportions. According to the American Sleep Association, between 50 to 70 million adults in the United States suffer from a sleep disorder. Approximately 35% of adults report less than 7 hours of sleep during a 24 hour period. The effects of sleep deprivation are far reaching, including death. There are 100,000 deaths each year in hospitals, due to medical errors, in which sleep deprivation is a contributing factor. So, exactly what is sleep deprivation? What causes it? What are the symptoms or physical effects? These are the questions that will be addressed in this article. (2)
According to the medical dictionary, sleep deprivation is defined as “a sufficient lack of restorative sleep over a cumulative period, so as to cause physical or psychiatric symptoms and affect routine performances of tasks.” (7) How much sleep is seen as “sufficient”? This depends on age. According to the American Sleep Association, appropriate sleep totals are as follows: (2)
Adult: 7 – 9 hours
Teenager: 8 – 10 hours
Child 6 – 12 years: 9- 12 hours
Child 3 – 5 years: 10 – 13 hours
Child 1 – 2 years: 11 – 14 hours
Infants 4 -12 months: 12 – 16 hours
Why is it that some people sleep well, getting plenty of rest, while others struggle just to fall asleep, much less get 8 solid hours? As it turns out, there are many causes of sleep deprivation. The causes are not simple to isolate and vary from person to person. It can be as simple voluntary deprivation from people who just don’t like to sleep and see it as a waste of time. Other people are simply sleep deprived, unintentionally, due to work, or family obligations. However, in most cases, it is much more complex, and caused by a variety of physical or psychological factors. Psychological factors include stress and depression. There are also a wide ranging number of physical factors including, sleep apnea, hormone imbalance, chronic illness, environmental factors, medicines, improper sleep hygiene and aging. (4,5)
As our mothers and grandmothers told us, we all need our “beauty sleep”. While there is actual research showing that overtired people appear less attractive to others, the physical and psychological effects of sleep deprivation are much more serious than just skin deep. (11) There are some basic symptoms of sleep deprivation, such as yawning, moodiness, fatigue, irritability, forgetfulness, inability to concentrate, increased stress, depression, lack of motivation, low libido and difficulty learning. (4,5) However, the physical effects are actually far reaching, dribbling into many aspects of our physical body. While entire books can be written about the physical effects of sleep deprivation, this article will touch briefly on the most serious ones:
Obesity/overeating – Research indicates a direct link between sleep restriction and the ability to regulate weight. (10) Poor sleep quality has also been showm to increase food intake during waking hours. (12)
Heart disease – Individuals who are chronically sleep deprived have an increased risk, 33% to 45%, of developing heart disease. (9)
Type 2 diabetes – Getting less than 6 hours of sleep per night is associated with an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes. (8)
Alzheimer’s disease/memory loss/brain cell death – An increased accumulation of amyloid plaque was seen in the brains of elderly individuals who were sleep deprived for just one night. Amyloid plaque is one of the main signs of Alzheimer’s disease. (6,9)
Impaired immune function – One study showed a direct connection between sleep deprivation and impaired immune responses (13)
Which comes first, the chicken or the egg? There are many researchers who ask this age old question in relation to the physical effects of sleep deprivation. In other words, does sleep deprivation directly cause these serious physical and psychological conditions or do these conditions cause sleep deprivation.? The jury is still out. What is clear is sleep is a very important part of any health and nutrition regime, and should not be overlooked.
This post was first in a series of monthly articles I am writing, for the Hawthorn University Blog, on insomnia and sleep deprivation. This series will appear, here on my blog, the third Monday each month. Future articles will take an individual look at each one of the physical effects, and delve deeper into the link with sleep deprivation. There will also be articles on the types of insomnia, causes and possible treatments.
Until next time…Namaste my friends!
Ackermann, K., Revell, V.L., Lao, O., Rombouts, E.J., Skene, D.J., and Kayser, M., (2012). Diurnal rhythms in blood cell populations and the effect of acute sleep deprivation in healthy young men. DOI: 10.5665/sleep.1954. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22754039
Shokri-Kojaria, E., Wanga, G. J., Wiersa, C. E., Demirala, S.B., Sung Won Kima, M.G., Lindgrena, E., Ramireza, V., Zehraa, A., Freemana, C., Millera, G., Manzaa, P, Srivastavaa, T., De Santib, S., Tomasia, D., Benvenistec, H., and Volkowa, N.D., (2017). β-Amyloid accumulation in the human brain after one night of sleep deprivation. Retrieved from: https://www.pnas.org/content/pnas/115/17/4483.full.pdf
With more than 30% of the population suffering from insomnia, it is a fact that insomnia is a part of our society. Not only does insomnia have an impact on the individual, society as a whole suffers from this epidemic.
Polls indicate that 60% of individuals have driven while sleepy. A further 37% have fallen asleep at the wheel.
Insomnia impacts relationships as well. Lack of sleep is on of the main reason given for lack of intimacy.
With that said, I’ve decided to take a step back. Until now, I’ve been talking about ways to help insomnia. However, before you can adequately cure something, causes must first be determined. That is why I’ve decided to share this article from The Sleep Disorders Place. The following article breaks the causes of insomnia down into 4 categories.
Each of these four areas are very different from each other, and require different approaches. Here are some examples of causes from each area. (please see the main article for more details on each cause.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
hormonal changes in women
medical problems (arthritis, back pain, asthma, cancer, chronic pain, etc)
age related health issues (frequent urination, hot flashes, night sweats)
over use of sleep medications (over the counter and prescription sleep meds)
noise and/or severe temperatures
poor sleep hygiene
late night eating
changing sleep patterns
low melatonin levels
Closing Thoughts: The future of Insomnia Fix
Over the next several months, I will try to cover each of these causes in depth, one by one. I’ll let you know what’s behind each cause and give tips into how to alleviate each cause. Meanwhile, the link below will take you to The Sleep Disorders Place. This website is a great resource for insomnia.
Insomnia, more often than not, however, it is not one individual sleep disorder. Usually, the causes of insomnia are symptomatic of some other problem.
50-70 million American adults have a sleep disorder.
4.7% reported falling asleep while driving at least one time in the past 30 days.
Insomnia is the most common specific sleep disorder.
Short bouts are reported by about 30% of adults and long term chronic insomnia is reported by 10%.
35.3% adults report less than 7 hours of sleep each day.
100,000 deaths occur each year in US hospitals due to medical errors with sleep deprivation a contributing factor.
Melatonin, also known by most people as “the sleep hormone”, is an important and master hormone in the body. Insomnia is one symptom of melatonin deficiency. The main cause of melatonin deficiency is a faulty circadian clock (CC) or circadian rhythm.
What is the circadian rhythm?
Every organ, cell and gene is part of the CC, but, the cycle itself is run by the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN). This is a collection of 20,000 cells located in the hypothalamus at the center of the base of the brain.
The SCN is indirectly connected to several glands throughout the body, including the pituitary gland, adrenal glands, thyroid gland, the reproductive system and the pineal gland.
The SCN is essential to the health and daily rhythm of the body. ALL cellular activity throughout the body occurs in a circadian rhythm, including energy, metabolism, energy or nutrient sensing, maintenance, repair, division, communication and secretion. In order to have healthy body, and healthy melatonin production, it is necessary to have a healthy circadian clock. As you can see, a healthy SCN is necessary for the healthy functioning of the human body.
The light dark cycle
Light and darkness are at the core of SCN and CC functioning. As daylight penetrates the retina, the SCN signals the pineal gland to stop producing melatonin, speeds breathing, increases the heart rate and raises the body temperature. Upon opening the eyes, the digestive motility increases and the adrenals release cortisol to energize the body and increase alertness.
In the evening, as darkness sets in, the body prepares for sleep by dropping the body temperature and producing and releasing melatonin.
What disrupts the light/dark cycle?
As you can see, the light/dark cycle is essential to a healthy SCN and the proper functioning of the CC. So, what activities disrupt this important cycle?
Improper lighting at the wrong time of day will disrupt the circadian clock.
Bright screens, electronics, blue light and bright light at night create insomnia by delaying melatonin production.
Indoor light during the day is not bright enough, when compared to proper outdoor sunlight. In other words, when we spend our entire days under indoor, artificial light, we are not getting enough light, because outdoor light is much more intense and necessary to proper SCN/CC functioning.
How to wind your internal clock
If you’re suffering from insomnia, the first thing you need to do is ensure that your SCN/CC is functioning properly. Here are some tips:
Make sure you’re sleepy when you climb in bed.
Don’t toss and turn. Give yourself 20 minutes to fall asleep. After that, get up and do something quiet, like reading a book.
Stay away from electronics, and bright screens. Establish a relaxing bedtime routine.
Don’t eat, watch television or work on the computer while in your room. Your bedroom is only for sleeping and sex.
Your bedroom should be dark and quiet. Keep it at a cool temperature.
Avoid bright lights at night.
Stay away from electronics 30 to 60 minutes before your scheduled bedtime.
Don’t eat right before bed. It’s best to eat at least 2 – 3 hours before bed.
Spend time outside, in sunlight everyday, or as often as possible.
Exercise regularly improves sleep quality. Individuals of all ages fall asleep faster and sleep better with regular physical activity
Only drink caffeine in the morning. Caffeine takes up to 9 hours to dissipate from your system.
Avoid consuming alcohol before bedtime.
Reduce your fluid intake before bedtime.
The SCN/CC love schedules and regularity. Eat meals at the same time every day. When meals are set on a regular schedule, the CC functions more efficiently.
Eat a diet high in foods containing melatonin and tryptophan, a precursor to melatonin.
When researching the SCN and Circadian Rhythm for my thesis, I came across a wonderful and user friendly book called the Circadian Code by: Satchin Panda. Dr. Panda, is a professor at the Salk Institute and a founding member of the Center for Circadian Biology at the University of California, San Diego (Panda, 2018). Dr. Panda’s first breakthrough was as a member of the team that discovered blue light sensors in the retina, which signal the brain when it is morning or night .
Despite his scientific background, Dr. Satchin does a great job explaining the SCN and CC. His explanations are well presented and easy to understand. If you are having trouble sleeping, with a brief bout of insomnia, or maybe even dealing with chronic insomnia, I highly recommend his book With that said, his book isn’t just for people suffering insomnia. In fact, everyone should read it, knowing how important the SCN/CC is to the very functioning our our entire body.
Welcome to my new monthly series: The Insomnia Fix. I have quite a bit of experience with insomnia, having dealt with it earlier this year. If you suffer from insomnia or any form of sleep deprivation, I can totally sympathize.
It all started when I was in school. I have always been a night owl. I love nighttime, when the whole house is quiet. It’s so calming and peaceful. Because of this, I often found myself staying up reading or doing assignments late into the night. Occasionally, I would even stay up all night, or until an assignment was complete.
As you might imagine, this had a horrible affect on my sleep habits. Things were getting out of control. Either I would only sleep an hour or two, or I fell asleep at 4 o’clock AM, and slept until noon. My internal clock was completely off, probably from the all-nighters I pulled for my classes. It was similar to jet lag, when your body is set to a different time zone.
So, what did I do? I did what people do when they travel, I stayed up and adjusted to the correct time zone. One Friday night, I stayed up all night and all through the day Saturday, then went to bed at my new bedtime – 11:00 pm. It wasn’t fun for me, (or anyone around me ), but it worked. I’ll adjust this to 10:00 in the future, but for now was a huge improvement.
I also started a new bedtime routine. I turn off all electronics at 10:00, do 30 minutes of evening yin yoga, followed by 30 minute of meditation. For the first few nights, I used the herbal` supplement “valarian root” to promote relaxation, but was eventually able to fall asleep without it.
This was my experience with insomnia. It didn’t last too long, but, long enough to be a burden, not only to me, but my family as well. I was quite crabby and snapped at everyone, even my dog. Something had to be done. Though, what I did worked for me, it may not work for everyone.
In fact, this experience had such an impact on my life, that I wrote my graduate thesis on melatonin, also known as the sleep hormone. I discovered that it is so much more than a sleep hormone. I’ll be highlighting melatonin in a future Insomnia fix article.
I also decided to start this new series devoted entirely to insomnia, because of my own experiences, and the impact it had on my life. Throughout this series, we’ll delve deep into the types of insomnia, the root causes of insomnia, as well as cures, techniques and recipes designed to help cure this awful problem.