How to avoid common sleep deprivation effects with chronic pain?

How many times have you rolled around in bed wondering why you are still awake? It is never fun to go through the next day exhausted, but that could be the least of your problems—your body can suffer in many different ways from sleep deprivation effects. This is doubly true if you also suffer from chronic pain, with 65% of patients reporting sleep issues.

What are common sleep deprivation effects? 

We spend one-third of our life sleeping. It’s essential for a sharp mind and a healthy body. This is doubly true for those who suffer from chronic pain conditions as adequate rest can have a huge impact on pain levels.

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How much sleep should you get? According to the CDC, the average adult should get seven to nine hours of sleep a night and children should get ten to 11 hours. These are usually broken into 90-minute cycles, and the quality of sleep is also very important. If you are not entering REM sleep, you aren’t getting the true benefits of sleep, so you have to be mindful of your sleeping patterns. It is estimated that 50 – 70 million adults in the U.S. have sleep difficulties.

This number is even higher in those patients who are afflicted with chronic pain as 65% report having a sleeping disorder, such as non-restorative or disruptive sleep. A major issue with sleep deprivation is that it can increase a person’s sensitivity to pain, among other things, which perpetuates a vicious cycle of sleepless nights and worsening pain. Managing your pain and your sleeping habits can greatly affect your overall mental and physical health.

Once you understand the full sleep deprivation effects, we bet you’ll be motivated to try and change your sleeping habits for good!

1. Minor sleep loss can be just like drinking alcohol

Not getting enough sleep can have some big effects on your brain and every other organ in your body. According to Jeffrey P. Barasch, M.D., Medical Director of The Valley Hospital Center for Sleep Medicine, a two hours loss of sleep can have effects similar to alcohol intoxication.

Sleep deprivation leads to a reduction in judgement, response speed, motor skills, and accuracy, some of which are even greater than alcohol consumption. Some tests showed response speeds were 50% worse than drinking, so think twice about getting behind the wheel next time you have a sleepless night.

2. Lack of sleep can lead to emotional vulnerability and negative thinking

Various sleep studies have shown that not getting enough rest can wreak havoc on your mental state. It can impair thinking and emotional regulation in the brain. Specifically, it changes your mindset to one that is more vulnerable to further degradation. It can include symptoms such as:

  • Irritability
  • Hallucinations
  • Impaired decision-making abilities
  • Mood swings

Sleep problems can also have long-term effects on the mind. It can:

  • Impair creative thinking
  • Reduce focus
  • Lower work or school productivity
  • Greatly increase your chances of developing depression and anxiety

It is believed that patients with untreated insomnia are between two and ten times more likely to have or develop major depression episodes. It can also exacerbate preexisting conditions such as bipolar disorder and ADHD.

3. Increased risk of serious cardiovascular health problems

Sleep is critical to the body’s repair and recovery process. People who routinely do not get enough sleep are at a much higher risk for developing numerous other diseases as the body does not have time to effectively carry out this procedure. These diseases include:

In a Harvard Medical School study, it was found that people with hypertension, who did not get adequate sleep, will have elevated blood pressure all throughout the following day. Another study found that those with insomnia had a 45% increase of developing or dying from a cardiovascular disease.

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4. Risk of increased weight gain

New research by the University of Chicago Medical Center shows that a decrease in sleep leads to more cravings of higher fat snacks. This sleep deprivation effects study showed that when offered food, sleep deprived participants reported higher scores for hunger and desire to eat and ate twice as much fat than when they had eight hours of sleep.

The reason this leads to weight gain is that the additional hours awake do not expend the extra calories that are consumed. In the study, the average person burned an additional 70 calories from losing four hours of sleep, but binged an additional 300 calories. Erin Hanlon, phd, a research associate in endocrinology, diabetes, and metabolism at the University of Chicago stated that:

“If you’re sleep deprived, your hedonic drive for certain foods gets stronger, and your ability to resist them may be impaired. So you are more likely to eat it. Do that again and again, and you pack on the pounds.”

5. Insomnia can lead to more sleepless nights and chronic pain

A major issue with insomnia and pain is that you can be caught in a destructive loop. Chronic pain conditions can harm a quality sleep cycle and poor sleep can lower a patient’s pain threshold and pain tolerance, which makes existing pain feel even more severe.

While sleeping pills are an option to get more sleep, they can interact poorly with other medications. Furthermore, a study showed that lack of sleep can also counteract the effectiveness of medication for many conditions.

6. Reduces the effectiveness of your immune system

The effects of sleep deprivation can really do a number on your immune system. The Mayo Clinic states that lack of quality sleep can raise the risk of infection as well as increase the recovery time from being ill.

The reason for this is that certain proteins (cytokines) are released when the body is fighting infections and inflammation and their production is decreased when you are low on sleep.

How to get better sleep for pain management

We have all had nights where we toss and turn without getting any sleep. There are a lot of things that can interfere with a person’s sleep cycle, from stress at work to family responsibilities to chronic pain. With all the stress of our daily lives, it’s a true challenge to figure out how to get better sleep.

Sleep can be a wonderful relief to a long day regardless if it was filled with work or play, but only if it is quality sleep. Here are a handful of tricks and tips that will show you how to get better sleep, so you can fill your night with the sleeps you need and avoid these sleep deprivation effects.

1. Stick to a sleep schedule

Getting your body in the habit of going to sleep and waking up the same time each day will improve the quality of your sleep quite a bit.

A consistent sleep schedule allows you to match up with your body’s natural sleep cycle (AKA circadian rhythm) and will leave you more refreshed and energized than sticking to an erratic sleeping pattern.

2. Get comfortable and control your sleeping environment

Creating a nighttime ritual to wind down before bed will also improve sleep quality. This can include breathing and visualization techniques to calm the mind. You can also try reading a book, listening to music, or taking a relaxing bath or shower.

Make sure your bedroom is cool, quiet, and relaxing for you. It is also smart to make sure your bed and pillows adequately meet your needs as they can greatly influence your sleep quality.

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3. Avoid sleeping in or long naps

Trying to figure out how to get better sleep, but your weekends and weekdays are completely different? It is easy to sleep in after a busy week or a long night out, but even a change of an hour in your natural sleep schedule can cause sleep problems.

Your best bet to more quality sleep is to avoid sleeping in on weekends and instead take short naps in the early afternoon to avoid throwing off your internal clock. Otherwise, this extra sleep could mess up your sleep schedule for days! Also important to note, if you are fighting bouts of insomnia at night, consider eliminating napping or heavily limiting it to 15 minutes.

4. Be mindful of light exposure

Sunlight plays a large role in how our bodies regulate a variety of functions, but most certainly our sleep patterns. Try to get as much light (preferably natural) as you can in the mornings and afternoons.

When night rolls around, avoid heavy light (i.e. Tvs, computers, etc.) At least an hour before you go to bed as overexposure reduces melatonin production, the hormone that signals the brain that it is time for sleep. It is also a good idea to make sure that you are sleeping in a dark room and away from technology like blinking cell phones or bright digital clocks.

5. Look at your eating habits and diet 

The food you eat during the day can definitely affect how you sleep. This is doubly true for food and beverages ingested a few hours before bed. Heavy meals can be tough on the stomach and, while alcohol can relax the body, it also has disruptive effects on your sleep cycle.

Instead, try to keep late night snacks to something healthy like granola or a banana. It is also best to cut out nicotine and caffeine after lunchtime as these substances can take up to ten hours to wear off and can be a main culprit of poor quality sleep.

6. Try cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) 

New research out of the University of Warwick shows that CBT has moderate to strong effectiveness at reducing insomnia, specifically for patients with chronic pain conditions. This is particularly important as long-term pharmaceutical options for insomnia are not viable and can interact poorly with pain management medications.

According to Dr Nicole Tang, from the University’s Department of Psychology:

“This study is particularly important because the use of drugs to treat insomnia is not recommended over a long period of time therefore the condition needs to be addressed using a non-pharmacological treatment. We believe that our results will be of particular interest to primary care physicians and allied health professionals who are taking up an increasingly important role in preventing and managing long-term conditions.”

7. Eliminate the clutter in your bedroom

Today, many bedrooms are multifunctional rather than just being somewhere we sleep. More and more people use their bedroom as an office or entertainment room, which can affect your sleep patterns.

Try to simplify the room by removing these distractions and it might just help you relax when you lay down for bed.

8. Get moving and exercise!

Exercise in the mornings or afternoons can be quite energizing. It is also vital to keeping the body’s natural rhythm on check while promoting healthy sleep. Various studies have shown that moderate aerobic exercise can reduce the time it takes to fall asleep and increase the length of sleep of those who suffer from sleeping disorders.

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