This is an article I originally wrote on behalf of ReachOut.com for publication in the Irish Sunday Business Post

You are busy at work, trying to finish a deadline to hand into your boss, and you decide to miss out on sleep to get it done. It’s okay, you can catch up later right? Research tells us this is not the case. Even a single night of sleep deprivation can have a noticeable effect on your body. The average person needs between 7.5 and 9 hours of sleep. According to researchers at the University of California, less than 3% of the world’s population carries a gene that allows them function well with only 6 hours of sleep per night.

Effects of Sleep Deprivation and the Importance of sleep

Sleep is a crucial part of our daily lives. It helps restore energy, keep our memory functioning properly, and heal our bodies. Sleep deprivation can be caused by a number of key factors including mental health problems like depression, anxiety, and life stressors; physical influences such as asthma, breathing disorders, pregnancy, stimulants, medication, and jet lag can also cause disruptions in our sleeping patterns. When our sleep is disrupted for even a few days, we experience decreased concentration, memory problems, decreased energy, irritability, and weight gain. Long-term sleep deprivation can lead to depression, anxiety disorders, significantly reduced immune system, and increased risk of diabetes, heart disease, and other health problems. When we experience sleep deprivation, our concentration is reduced and reaction times are significantly slowed. It is estimated that 15-20 per cent of all road traffic accidents in Ireland are the result of sleep deprivation.

Circadian rhythms

Our Circadian Rhythm works like our internal body clock; and is responsible for regular bodily functions, such as appetite, energy, mood, sleep, and the rise and fall of hormone and neurotransmitter levels. While our Circadian Rhythm is run by our biological clock, it is also effected by external factors in our environment – mostly appetite and sun exposure. At sunset, our bodies notice that the amount of sunlight is beginning to decrease, and react by triggering the brain to produce more melatonin – an important hormone for sleep. As the sunlight increases in the morning, again, our bodies take note and prompt the brain to decrease the amount of melatonin, causing you to wake up. When our circadian rhythm becomes out of sync, we are more likely to feel tired during the day and feel awake in the evenings. When this happens, we are likely to develop Circadian Rhythm Disorder (CRD). You are more likely to develop CRD when you are working late shifts, experiencing jet lag from travelling, not keeping a normal sleep-wake cycle, or  are lacking exposure to sunlight.

Seasonal affective disorder

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is also closely related to CRD. During the winter months, our bodies receive insufficient amounts of sunlight, this leads to low levels of Vitamin D and Serotonin. This can inhibit our brains’ ability to produce hormones at the correct time of day. When our bodies experience low levels of Vitamin D and Serotonin, our risk for depression is also significantly increased. These symptoms usually diminish as the days begin to get longer.

It has also been found that people who suffer from Bipolar Disorder experience depressive episodes in a seasonal fashion, and doctors believe there may be a connection between Bipolar Disorder and CRD. In autumn and winter, as the daylight decreases, bipolar sufferers are more likely to enter a depressive episode and experience a disrupted sleeping pattern.

Doctors have found that treating SAD and Depressive episodes in Bipolar disorder with light exposure can be very successful, due to a shared link to a lack of sunlight.

Tips for Falling Asleep

While disruption in sleeping patterns can cause difficulties, there are steps you can take to improve your sleeping pattern. By avoiding naps, late-night  meals, coffee and cigarettes near bed time, and by going to bed, and waking up at the same time each day, you will begin to see an improvement in your sleep cycle.

For more tips and information on Sleep Hygiene and Sleep Deprivation, check out the following links:

How Much Sleep Do You Need?

Your Guide To Healthy Sleep

Healthy Sleep Tips

Free Downloadable Sleep Diary

Nicole Paulie is a Counselling Psychologist, and co-author of “How to be Happy and Healthy – The seven natural elements of mental health.” She provides therapy in the Dublin city area. Contact us to learn more or to book an appointment.

I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead: The Health Risks Behind Sleep Deprivation
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