How does your body respond after years of sleep deprivation?

I doubt that many readers were aware that last week was ‘Sleep Awareness Week’.  Many of you may have treated the week with a bit of a yawn (sic) and wondered why have a week devoted to celebrate sleep awareness. Perhaps you missed any reference to the designated week because there always seems to be a special month, week or day to recognize an issue or a cause and most of us are inured to the media hype. On this topic, however, the daily newspaper articles prompted thinking about the importance of sleep — especially after retirement when  personal schedules tend to be more flexible.

For the past three decades I took sleep for granted grabbing as much sleep time as my hectic schedule allowed.  Often this amounted to only 4 to 5 hours. I never resented those nights when I had to care for a sick child or finish a work related project.  I loved those times when I partied late or spent most of the night reading a best seller and made it in to the office fortified with black coffee.  As a young woman I was able to cut back on sleep without feeling any ill-effects.   If I had an especially draining week, I could easily catch up.  Growing older, I found that it took longer to catch up — often most of the weekend — and I avoided many social activities just because I needed more ‘down’ time to rest before another hectic week at the office. Usually I rationalized this as job stress from demanding 70 plus hour work weeks.  In retrospect, I lived most of the past 30 years in a state of sleep deprivation.  Although I didn’t realize it, at times I must have been a walking zombie.

Are you sleep deprived?

Here are a few questions you might want to consider

  • do you find yourself irritated with little things and intolerant about even the smallest mistakes?
  • do you feel a constant tiredness — what one of my friends calls ‘tired behind the eyes’ — to the point where you have a constant longing to do nothing?
  • do you experience poor concentration with difficulty focusing on projects or tasks — even those that are mundane?
  • do you find yourself feeling overwhelmed, helpless and ‘wound-up’ — all at the same time?

These are symptoms of chronic sleep deprivation and I’m sure that many readers have experienced all of some of these effects at various times.  If like me, you tended to ignore the obvious symptoms in favour of pushing ahead with your life, read on.

Our bodies react to lack of sleep

Sleep experts now tell us that most people need between 7 and 8 hours of sleep for optimum health. Experts tell us that we not only experience the psychological effects, but that our bodies also react physically to sleep deprivation.  Here are some of the effects on our bodies:

  • You may have blurred vision and trouble focusing effectively. .
  • Lack of sleep creates an imbalance of hormones so that you feel hungry — therefore the link between sleep deprivation and weight gain.
  • Other health problems may occur because the immune system weakens over time from lack of sleep which may explain why so many people get ill during or after a vacation.
  • Coordination may be impaired resulting in poor balance or difficulty operating machines such as motor vehicles — hence the increase in car accidents when the time changes in the spring and the fall.
  • Add to all of these the icky feeling of overall lethargy and sheer exhaustion.

Solutions may be easy to achieve

Let’s begin with the obvious — pay attention to your sleep needs as a way of taking care of your health.  Bodies have intelligence but often we ignore the obvious signals.  Each of us will have unique needs and will also experience changes in sleep patterns as our lives change or during periods of high/low activity.

Consistency of sleep/wake times helps many people.  Others just use the ‘sleep when you want to sleep and for as long as you need to sleep’ rule.  Many find that simply getting up at the same time every day creates a rhythm that helps with sleep.

Pay attention to light contamination which can affect sleep patterns as melatonin which induces sleep in our bodies is suppressed by light.

Consider herbal remedies — various oils including lavender and herbal teas can calm frayed nerves and help with sleep.

Many people find that retirement provides an overall boost to health — less stress, no rigid schedules, time to exercise and time to sleep.  Perhaps the most important result is the time to sleep — what a blessing!

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