Sleep is not wasted time. It is necessary down time for your consciousness and for your physical body and its multiple systems. While no two people need precisely the same amount of sleep to be and stay well, we all need our own degrees of ‘enough.’ Failing to get enough sleep, over time, can cause symptoms to develop which mimic and are sometimes mistaken for those of specific serious mental disorder.
From the time we are children, we are told we have to get our sleep. Many years ago, I heard the once world renowned psychologist, Bruno Bettelheim, address a group of parents when someone in the audience asked “What is the right bedtime for a seven year old?” Dr. Bettelheim said, “The first thing you have to remember is that bedtimes are for parents.”
At the time (the early 1970’s) everything that Dr. Bettelheim said was regarded as fact. Well, as it turns out, while there is SOME truth in what he said, the reality is that children do need sleep – often more than adults – and bedtimes are arrived at usually using an (informal) formula with elements including both the parents’ needs and the child’s needs.
There has been a tremendous amount of research in the area of sleep deprivation since then. The newer areas of investigation often focus on the accumulated effects of regular doses of not getting enough sleep … Chronic Intermittent Sleep Deprivation (CISD.) Research done at dozens of major universities and medical research facilities around the world (links to several summaries are listed as Resources to this article) have all been yielding strikingly similar and profoundly important results.
Key among them is that not getting enough sleep for a period of time, even if it is the loss of an hour or two a night over the period of a couple of weeks, can cause symptoms to develop (mostly adults have been studied) which may look an awfully lot like depression, attention deficit disorder, bipolar disorder or, in some cases, even thought disorders (schizophrenic-like conditions.)
Your body cannot simply be returned to a ‘default’ condition by sleeping a little extra one night after losing bites of sleep over time. In this technological age, we tend to think about ‘rebooting’ as a fix for a lot of things. In the case of sleep and the human totality, this simply does not work.
The effects are cumulative – they store and are built up over time (metaphorically akin to Mercury poisoning) – and begin to generate symptoms when a certain body of sleep deprivation has been accrued. This amount, just like sleep need itself will vary from individual to individual.
There are many important implications to this increasingly investigated and understood phenomenon and the relationships it suggests.
A good period of sleep is not really discretionary for most people if they hope to function at their best. Over a relatively (and somewhat surprisingly) brief period of time, the impact of inadequate sleep will begin to impair waking functioning. These impacts may not be immediately conspicuous and are apt to be attributed, when first noticed, to other causes.
For this reason, if a person is not feeling right or ‘like themselves,’ a visit to their healthcare provider is probably a reasonable idea. In that visit, even if the provider does not think to ask specifically about it, it would be wise to mention any change in their sleep patterns – especially those involving increased difficulty falling or remaining asleep.
Unfortunately, sleep loss is often presumed to be a symptom of something (like depression) rather than a precipitant (cause) of a problem … like depression.
Inadequate rest deprives both our bodies and minds of the downtime we need to remain healthy and adequately balanced. Often misdiagnosed, based on the outward presentations, as ADHD (sleep deprivation tends to impair one’s ability to focus,) depression or other mood disorders (as lack of adequate sleep impacts our ability to really feel “OK”,) by well meaning practitioners, the wrong thing can wind up being treated.
Inadequate sleep over time can cause a person to appear mentally unbalanced or disturbed. Those who work graveyard shifts and those who have always had trouble getting enough sleep are particularly vulnerable. Various techniques can be taught to improve this situation and there is an available armamentarium of pharmaceuticals that can be prescribed to help too.
Sleep deprivation, even in moderate amounts, over time is not to be ignored. If this sounds like it might pertain to you, there is little to lose by consulting with your health care provider about it.