How Sleep Deprivation Affects Our Functioning

Musicians' Assistance Program

Volume C, No. 4April, 2000

Jackelyn S. Frost, CSW

Nearly half of all Americans have difficulty sleeping. Research indicates that sleep problems have reached epidemic proportions and may be the country’s number one health problem. A recent study by the National Sleep Foundation revealed that 64 percent of people in the United States sleep less than the recommended eight hours a night, while 32 percent sleep fewer than six hours. We need sleep to survive, and the amount we get may affect longevity. Research has shown that those who sleep fewer than six hours a night do not live as long as those who sleep seven hours or more.

For musicians, sleep problems may impact your musical performance and your creativity. Your schedule may require you to perform late into the night, or you may prefer to write music in the middle of the night, when others are asleep and your focus is not disturbed by other demands. Sleep quality can also be undermined if your schedule changes frequently, causing your bedtime to change from night to night. Adjusting to time changes and jet lag while on tour, and trying to sleep in unfamiliar motel rooms, can cause anxiety and stress – both of which contribute to insomnia.

Other worries – about not finding enough work or not earning enough money, for example, – may cause you to become anxious or depressed, and these conditions often result in sleep problems. Other symptoms of depression include irritability, loss of interest, feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness, guilt, low energy and weight changes. If you think you may be depressed, it is important to see your doctor without delay.

Physical pain may also keep you awake. But most conditions that cause pain can be treated and almost any pain can be controlled, so see your doctor if pain is keeping you awake.

The vast majority of Americans with sleep disorders go undiagnosed and untreated. People snore when the floppy tissue in the back of the throat gets in the way of the air going in or out. Snoring is more common in older adults – but the fact that it is common doesn’t mean it should be ignored. Regular snoring may also be a sign of sleep apnea, which can be a serious condition. Snoring is a very treatable condition so if it keeps you or your partner awake, talk to your doctor.

Sleep apnea – one of the most common sleep disorders – is a condition where your breathing is temporarily interrupted while you sleep. About 4 percent of middle-aged men and 2 percent of middle-aged women are believed to suffer from it. A common sign of sleep apnea is snoring following by a period of silence that ends with a loud gasp as the sleeper begins to breathe again. You may be unaware that this is happening, but your sleep partner will be able to tell you. Sleep apnea not only interferes with sleep, it may also be associated with serious lung and heart problems.


Sufficient sleep is as important as nutrition and exercise. To habitually short-change yourself – at any age – will take its toll on your health and performance, for sleep loss can affect your memory and make it difficult to learn new things or to perform daily tasks. Sleep problems can also make it difficult to recover from an illness, and potentially worsen the disease. Your sleep debt accumulates over time, interfering with your optimal physical and mental well being.

If you sleep only six hours each night, you are missing vital time for your mind to repair and prepare for the coming day. Between the seventh and eighth hour of sleep is when we get almost an hour of REM (rapid eye movement) sleep – the time when the mind repairs itself, grows new connections and consolidates these changes. REM sleep occurs about every 90 minutes, and the periods of REM sleep get longer as the night progresses.

If you experience two or more of these symptoms, you may be suffering from sleep deprivation:

Struggling to get out of bed in the morning;

  • Hitting the snooze button several times to get more sleep;
  • Feeling tired, irritable and stressed-out during the week;
  • Having trouble concentrating and remembering;
  • Feeling slow with critical thinking, problem-solving and being creative;
  • Falling asleep after consuming a small amount of alcohol;
  • Falling asleep while watching TV or relaxing after dinner;
  • Falling asleep within five minutes of getting into bed;
  • Needing to nap to get through the day.

One theory holds that our increasing wakefulness is partially due to electricity, which powers lights, computers and televisions sets late into the night. It may also be a result of attitudes: many people feel that getting eight hours or more of sleep each night is laziness. But this point of view ignores the very real benefits of adequate sleep. An extra hour or two can result in a surprising increase in happiness, productivity and creativity.


There are a number of things you can do to improve your sleep:

  • Avoid alcohol before bed. While it feels like a sedative for most people, it will often lighten your sleep and fragment your normal sleep pattern, leaving you groggy in the morning.
  • Nicotine, a stimulant, may also keep you awake – especially if used too close to bedtime – and should be avoided. A light bedtime snack high in carbohydrates may help you relax.
  • Avoid caffeinated beverages six hours prior to bedtime, as well as heavy, spicy or high-sugar foods.
  • Exercising regularly can help you sleep, but avoid exercising two to three hours (or less) before bedtime. This can raise your heart rate and your general metabolism, causing you to feel wide awake just as you are trying to fall asleep.
  • If you’re awake and can’t sleep, leave your bedroom. Do something mundane and go back to bed only when you feel tired.
  • Try to avoid napping. Although it will reduce your daytime fatigue, it will affect the quality of your sleep at night.
  • If you take regular medications, especially some of those used to control high blood pressure or asthma, your sleep may be affected. If you think that medication may be interfering with your sleep, talk to your doctor.
  • Try to establish a routine sleep pattern by setting yourself the same bedtime and waking time, every day of the week.
  • Create some quiet time an hour before retiring. Try to unwind with relaxation techniques such as meditation to reduce muscular tension. You might also try taking a warm bath, reading a book or listening to relaxing music.
  • You may find it easier to fall asleep if you get into a proper sleep position, usually the position you are in when you wake up.
  • When on the road, ask for a quiet hotel room. Pack a small bag with everything you need to make sure you are comfortable. Include any prescription medications you need, headache pills, antacid tablets, earplugs, eye shades for sleeping, a case and solutions for contact lenses, snacks, and anything else you might need.

If you would like to speak to a social worker at the Musicians’ Assistance Program to get further information and help to address your sleep problems, please call (212) 397-4802 to schedule an appointment.

Resources used in this article include: “Power Sleep” by James Maas, Villard, 1998;; 11/12/99;; “Sleep Debt is Killing Americans and Hurting Economy,” from San Diego Earth Times, February 1998.