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What you need to know about sleep deprivation and how to avoid it

To get an idea of what sleep deprivation looks like, all you have to do is catch an episode of Survivor or The Block. Contestants on both shows have been pushed to their limits on very little sleep.

Suzi Taylor, of The Block, collapsed on set and was admitted to hospital because of sheer exhaustion after working round-the-clock during the 2015 season. Simon Voss, another Block contestant that ended up in the hospital has spoken about going 54 hours without sleep, just to stay in the game.

Survivor contestants, famous for their delirious antics, might have a valid excuse. Sleep deprivation inhibits an individual from being able to think clearly. A point that’s made through contestants like Flick, who reported experiencing hallucinations from such an extreme lack of sleep. It’s no wonder Survivor contestants suffer from sleep deprivation, though. As the first contestant voted out in 2017, Joan, likened the island’s accommodation to “sleeping under a cold shower”.

So, what are the effects of lack of sleep? If you’ve ever tried to go a day without sleep, you probably have a good idea of what it feels like. But can lack of sleep cause permanent damage? Can it make a person seriously ill?

How Serious is Sleep Deprivation?

Sleep problems are incredibly common. The Sealy Sleep Census found 1 in 3 Australians missed out on 700 hours of sleep in 2016. What’s more, 70% of Australians said their everyday performance was impacted by lack of sleep.

According to the Sleep Health Foundation of Australia, sleep deprivation can lead to:

  • Increased risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease 
  • Increased consumption of comfort foods that contain lots of fat and sugar 
  • Reduced immune function 
  • Decreased cognitive function 
  • Higher incidence of mental health disorders like depression, anxiety, and even psychosis 
  • Unstable mood 
  • Poor memory and focus 
  • Slowed reaction time 
  • Increased incidence of mortality 

Sleep deprivation affects a person’s overall quality of life and their safety. Because a lack of sleep slows reaction time, it’s dangerous to drive while drowsy, but plenty of Australians admit to doing so on occasion. Also, when you’re short on sleep, your mental health suffers alongside your energy levels – running the risk of experiencing depression and anxiety.

The case for getting a good night’s sleep doesn’t stop there, but first let’s define what classifies as sleep deprivation.

How Do You Know if You’re Getting Enough Sleep?

It’s normal to feel drowsy sometimes, but are you actually sleep deprived? The Epworth Sleepiness Scale is a system created by Australian researchers to measure sleep deprivation.

It asks a series of questions that measure a person’s likelihood of falling asleep during the day while performing normal tasks. The more likely you are to fall asleep while reading a book or watching TV, the more likely it is you’re suffering from sleep deprivation.

Here are some common signs of sleep deprivation to look out for:

  • Nodding off while watching a movie or after a relaxing yoga session 
  • Excessive hunger and comfort food cravings 
  • Falling asleep within five minutes of lying down 
  • You’re always catching colds and can’t seem to ward off illness 
  • Staring into space many times throughout the day 
  • You have a hard time controlling your emotions

The standard measure for a good night’s sleep is 8 hours of uninterrupted slumber. Most well-rested people report getting 7-9 hours of sleep per night. Anything less than that, on a consistent basis, may lead to what’s called ‘sleep debt’ or sleep deprivation.

The effects of sleep deprivation are cumulative. Someone who hasn’t gotten more than 5 hours of sleep per night for a week is going to have completely different symptoms than someone who hasn’t slept well in months or years.

How to Cope with a Lack of Sleep

Sometimes in life you’re forced to sleep less than you’d like. A new baby, coping with illness, shift work, or dealing with insomnia are common reasons why someone might not get as much sleep as they know is necessary.

However, all's not lost, and don’t let that list of side effects scare you into thinking the situation is hopeless. Going without sleep for a while isn’t the end of the world, and there are some simple ways to make sure you get through it unscathed.

Tips for coping with sleep deprivation:

  • Incorporate gentle daily exercise to increase your energy 
  • Nap whenever you can 
  • Practice deep breathing when you’re feeling sleepy 
  • Remind yourself that it’s only temporary 
  • Lighten your load, work less, and create ample time in your schedule to just relax 

Easy Ways to Prevent Sleep Deprivation

Sleep deprivation is easily prevented and sometimes it’s as simple as not staying up late binge-watching The Block. Other times, it’s realising how important sleep really is.

The best way to prevent sleep deprivation is to consciously remind yourself that if you’re well rested, you’re much more likely to be productive and resilient in the face of stress and a never-ending to-do list.

Make sure you get quality sleep by doing the following:

  • Create a regular sleep schedule 
  • Unplug from the tv and internet at least an hour before you plan on going to bed and turn your phone off while you sleep 
  • Avoid drinking coffee in the afternoon and don’t eat anything heavy right before bed 
  • Make sure your bed is the right size and firmness 
  • Create a sleep sanctuary, make going to bed something worth looking forward to 
  • Exercise 3-5 days per week, ideally in the morning 
  • If your mind races and worry keeps you awake, try writing in a journal before bed. Get everything off your chest and clear your mind so when your head hits the pillow the only thing left to do is snooze 
  • Try using an eye mask or earplugs if you’re sensitive to noise and light 

Make Sleep a Priority – Your Body and Mind Will Thank You

The world record for the longest amount of time not sleeping is 11 days. Most people can’t imagine going that long without sleep, yet we happily shave off a few hours every night in order to surf the web or get some extra work done.

The longer you let yourself lose sleep, the greater the sleep debt you accumulate, and the harder it becomes to recognise that you’re sleep deprived.

If you can’t remember what it feels like to be really well rested, do yourself a favour and cut the lights early tonight. The increased energy, productivity, and overall sense of wellness a good night’s sleep creates will make you want to dive under the covers a little earlier each night. Lucky for you, you’re not a contestant on The Block or Survivor.

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