Causes of sleep deprivation may seem simple enough. Either you have insomnia or are not getting to bed on time for a full night’s sleep. But there are other causes which could be unknown to you, because they affect not just the amount of hours you sleep, but the quality of your sleep. You could be putting in eight hours on your mattress, but still suffer from the effects of deprivation.
Of course the most obvious cause, insomnia, is what this whole site is about, but many people do not describe themselves as insomniacs because they manage to sleep and are rarely fully awake during the night. But they get up tired and unrefreshed, feeling as if they slept poorly but not really knowing why.
So it’s time to look into the more subtle causes of sleep deprivation.
Certain medical conditions can be subtle causes of sleep deprivation, including sleep apnea, asthma, allergies, heart irregularities, arthritis, muscular pain, restless leg syndrome, twitching, itching, muscle cramps, hot flashes and fibromyalgia.
I have identified most of these same conditions as causes of insomnia, and of course they are. But in many cases, they do not produce actual sleeplessness or wakefulness. They just affect the quality and duration of each sleep cycle, preventing the deeper stages that bring true rest and rejuvenation. Instead you just hover in a twilight zone between Stage 1 and Stage 2 (see article on sleep stages).
You may not be consciously aware of the fact that you’re not sleeping deeply, and in fact, you might not remember the number of times you came so close to being awake.
In the case of sleep apnea — one of the most common causes of sleep deprivation that interrupts normal sleep cycles without fully awakening the sleeper — treatment is very important. The effects of sleep apnea can be dangerous over time, as it affects the cardiovascular system and general health in a profound way. Not to mention the breathing difficulties and lack of sufficient oxygen while you are asleep.
Medication Causes of Sleep Deprivation
Certain medications may also cause sleep deprivation. While some insomniacs find that their medications prevent sleep altogether, others are able to get some sleep, but, again, little if any deep or restful sleep.
The most common culprits are antidepressants, beta blockers, ADHD meds, certain antibiotics, thyroid hormone (in excess), some anti-seizure meds, and many more. If you are taking any medication that affects the quality of sleep, discuss it with your doctor. Please don’t let it slide, as there may be an alternative that will not cause you to suffer this way.
Sleep Cycle and Circadian Rhythm Disruptions
Sleep cycle disruptions are sleep disorders that interrupt the normal cycle of the four sleep stages (plus REM), including night terrors, nightmares, sleepwalking, sleeptalking, and so on.
While these sleep disorders will often cause you to wake up fully, sometimes they don’t — instead they simply disrupt the cycle and timing, bringing you back to Stage 1 (twilight zone) before you got a chance to reach Stage 3 and 4 (deep sleep). I will discuss these various sleep disorders in a separate article. But just keep in mind that if you feel sleep deprived yet show no signs of the restless wakefulness that goes with obvious insomnia, don’t presume you are sleeping well.
Environmental Causes of Sleep Deprivation
We have discussed the bedroom causes of insomnia in this article. But sometimes the environmental factors are so subtle that you are not fully aware of what is happening. They are enough to prevent deep sleep, but not enough to rouse you completely.
Noise, temperature, and a poor mattress are some of the most insidious causes of sleep deprivation. The discomfort leads to partial awakening and restless sleep, but you can’t pinpoint the actual trigger because it’s not enough to bring you to full consciousness. These subtle, nagging irritants build up over time. The dog that begins barking at 3:00 AM every night… the heater that won’t shut off by itself… the hard lumps and valleys in the old mattress…. These are fairly easy to fix. The challenge is becoming aware of them in the first place.
Stress and Lifestyle Causes of Sleep Deprivation
Without repeating what I’ve already said countless times throughout this site about stress, anxiety, worry and lifestyle factors causing insomnia, I will simply point out that these same ingredients can cause sleep deprivation effects in a much more subtle way — by degrading the quality of your sleep even if they don’t actually wake you up.
I found that in the weeks following my most severe insomnia, I had many nights in which I managed to fall asleep and stay asleep, but still woke up tired. I still considered this an improvement, however, over not sleeping at all. If you are emerging from a bout of serious insomnia, you can expect some nights of restless and unrefreshing sleep as you move towards something better. Do not despair, though. While poor sleep is not ideal, it is still better than no sleep at all.
Treating the Causes of Sleep Deprivation
None of these causes are hard to fix, but you must be diligent. Do not settle for poor sleep, even if it is an improvement from total wakefulness. Continue the 10 step program, and all efforts to improve sleep hygiene. There is no reason to give up. Get your health under control, your medications adjusted, your stress levels reduced and your sleep disorders (if any) treated through appropriate medical channels. Then enjoy the deep and restful sleep that is waiting for you!