Key Takeaways
  • Sleep deprivation occurs when you do not get the sleep you need.
  • Most adults need at least seven hours of quality sleep each night.
  • Sleep deprivation can cause daytime sleepiness, mood shifts, difficulty concentrating, and slower thinking.
  • Long-term sleep deprivation may play a role in the development of health problems.
  • Address sleep deprivation by prioritizing your sleep schedule, creating a comfortable sleep environment, and working with a doctor.

Sleep deprivation occurs when someone does not get the amount of sleep they need. It is estimated that sleep deprivation affects around one-third of Americans, with increased prevalence in recent years. 

Lack of sleep directly affects how we think and feel. Even after just one night without enough rest, we can feel drowsy during the day with slowed thinking, lack of energy, and an irritable mood. While the short-term impacts are more noticeable, chronic sleep deprivation can heighten the long-term risk of physical and mental health problems. Understanding this condition, including its causes, symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment, can help prevent these negative effects and help you get the optimal amount of sleep.

What Is Sleep Deprivation?

The term sleep deprivation refers to getting less than the needed amount of sleep, which, for adults, is at least seven hours . Children and teens need even more nightly sleep than adults.

However, being well rested is about more than just how many hours you sleep. As a result, the terms sleep deficiency or sleep insufficiency are more frequently used to describe factors that reduce the quantity and/or quality of sleep and keep a person from waking up refreshed. For example, a person who sleeps for a total of eight hours but with many awakenings that fragment their sleep may have insufficient sleep even though their sleep duration technically meets the recommended amount.

Sleep deprivation and sleep insufficiency may be categorized in different ways depending on a person’s circumstances. Acute sleep deprivation refers to a short period, typically a few days or less, when a person experiences a significant reduction in their sleep time. Chronic sleep deprivation is defined as a curtailed sleep that persists for three months or longer. Chronic sleep deficiency or insufficient sleep can describe ongoing sleep deprivation as well as poor sleep that occurs because of sleep fragmentation or other disruptions.

While both insomnia and sleep deprivation are associated with a failure to get sufficient sleep, there are important distinctions between the two conditions. People with insomnia often have trouble sleeping even when they have plenty of time to sleep. Conversely, people with sleep deprivation do not have enough time allocated for sleep as a result of obligations or lifestyle practices. There can be considerable overlap between how sleep deprivation and insomnia are described, but people should be aware that their doctor or a sleep specialist may use more specific definitions.

Symptoms of Sleep Deprivation

The primary signs of sleep deprivation include excessive daytime sleepiness and daytime impairment such as reduced concentration, slower thinking, and mood changes.

Feeling extremely tired during the day is one of the hallmark symptoms of sleep deprivation. People with excessive daytime sleepiness may feel drowsy and have a hard time staying awake even when they need to. In some cases, this results in microsleeps in which a person dozes off for a few seconds.

Insufficient sleep can directly affect how a person feels during their waking hours. Examples of these symptoms include:

  • Slowed thinking
  • Reduced attention span
  • Worsened memory
  • Poor or risky decision-making
  • Lack of energy
  • Mood changes , including feelings of stress, anxiety, or irritability

A person’s symptoms can depend on the extent of their sleep deprivation and whether it is acute or chronic. Stimulants like caffeine can also mask the symptoms of sleep deprivation, so it is important to note how you feel on and off these substances.

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What Causes Sleep Deprivation?

Multiple factors can cause or contribute to sleep deprivation, including poor sleep hygiene, lifestyle choices, work obligations, sleep disorders, and other medical conditions.

Sleep deprivation may be driven by voluntary choices that reduce available sleep time. For example, a person who decides to stay up late to binge-watch a TV series may experience acute sleep deprivation. An inconsistent sleep schedule may facilitate these decisions and make them feel less intentional in the moment.

Work obligations are another common contributor to sleep deprivation. People who work multiple jobs or extended hours may not have enough time for sufficient sleep. Shift workers who have to work through the night may also find it hard to get the amount of sleep that they really need.Sleep deficiency may be caused by other sleep disorders or medical conditions. For example, sleep apnea, a breathing disorder that can induce dozens of nightly awakenings, may hinder both sleep duration and quality. Other medical or mental health concerns, such as pain or general anxiety disorder, can interfere with the quality and quantity of sleep.

What Are the Consequences of Sleep Deprivation?

The effects of sleep deprivation and sleep deficiency can be serious and affect multiple aspects of a person’s well-being.

Acute sleep deprivation raises the risk of unintentional errors and accidents. Drowsy driving, which involves slowed reaction time and the risk of microsleeps, can be life-threatening. People who are sleep deprived are more likely to struggle in school and work settings or to experience mood changes that may affect personal relationships.

Insufficient sleep increases risks in almost every system of the body.

Chronic sleep deprivation can contribute to a wide range of health problems. Sleep plays a fundamental role in the functioning of nearly all systems of the body, so a persistent lack of sleep poses significant risks to physical and mental health.

  • Cardiovascular disease: Studies have found strong associations between sleep deficiency and cardiovascular problems including high blood pressure, coronary heart disease, heart attack, and stroke.
  • Diabetes: Insufficient sleep appears to affect the body’s ability to regulate blood sugar , increasing the risk of metabolic conditions like diabetes.
  • Obesity: Research has found that people tend to consume more calories and carbohydrates when they do not get enough sleep, which is just one of several ways that poor sleep may be tied to obesity and problems maintaining a healthy weight.
  • Immunodeficiency: Sleep deficiency has been linked to worsened immune function , including a poorer response to vaccines.
  • Hormonal abnormalities: Sleep helps the body properly produce and regulate levels of various hormones , potentially increasing susceptibility to hormonal problems in people with sleep deprivation.
  • Pain: Sleep-deprived people are at a higher risk of developing pain or perceived worsening of existing pain. Pain may cause further sleep interruptions, creating a negative cycle of worsening pain and sleep.
  • Mental health disorders: Sleep and mental health are closely intertwined, and poor sleep has strong associations with conditions like depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder.

Given these diverse and important impacts of sleep deprivation, it comes as no surprise that studies have found insufficient sleep to be tied with a greater overall risk of death as well as a lower quality of life .

Diagnosis of Sleep Deprivation

Doctors can often diagnose sleep deprivation after discussing a patient’s symptoms and sleep patterns. This may involve keeping a sleep diary or taking a sleep questionnaire that offers a detailed look at sleep patterns and daytime symptoms.

In some cases, additional testing with sleep tracking technology, known as actigraphy, or with an overnight sleep study may be conducted if further information is needed or if a doctor suspects that the patient may have an underlying sleep disorder that is contributing to sleep insufficiency.

Treatment and Prevention of Sleep Deprivation

If you have ongoing or worsening insufficient sleep or daytime sleepiness, working with your doctor is a good first step to finding relief. Your doctor can assess your situation and recommend treatment that best suits your needs.

In most cases, a focus on sleep hygiene — your sleep environment and daily habits — is a central component of preventing and treating sleep deprivation. A number of key sleep hygiene strategies can provide relief for those who get insufficient sleep.

Address Sleep Deprivation

Many people get insufficient sleep because they accept sleep deprivation as normal. Rather than take the necessary steps to sleep more, they manage sleepiness by drinking coffee or energy drinks, napping, or simply trying to “power through.”

None of these approaches are sustainable solutions to sleep deprivation. They may help get through the day, but the cumulative effects of sleep deficiency will still take a toll both in the short and long term. For this reason, it is important to instead focus on sleeping more and getting higher quality rest.

Prioritize Sleep

Chronic insufficient sleep often occurs when people sacrifice sleep in favor of work, leisure, or other obligations. To counteract this, it is critical to make sleep a priority. You should strive to go to bed and wake up at the same times each day, even on weekends. In planning those times, make sure to budget time to get enough sleep. Once you have established your schedule, follow it closely. Stability in your sleep routine helps avoid fluctuations in your nightly sleep.

While it can be easy for the demands of your personal or professional life to chip away at your dedicated time for sleep, set boundaries so that you preserve the full time you need for rest each night. A steady bedtime routine can also put you in the right frame of mind to sleep well each night. Get yourself ready each night with the same steps such as quietly reading or stretching, putting on pajamas, and brushing your teeth.

Customize Your Bedroom Environment 

Design your bedroom environment to be ideal for your relaxation. You are less likely to avoid going to bed if your sleep setting is inviting and suits your comfort preferences. The best mattress and pillow for your needs and preferences should offer plenty of support, and your bedding should help you feel cozy while maintaining a moderate temperature. To minimize potential sleep disruptions, try to make sure your bedroom is as quiet and dark as possible.

Avoid Things That Can Interfere With Sleep 

A useful step in addressing sleep deprivation is to avoid things that can, often unbeknownst to you, negatively affect your sleep. For example, drinking alcohol at night can make you sleepy, but it can disrupt your normal sleep cycle, reducing overall sleep quality and consistency.

If you nap frequently, keep them shorter than 30 minutes and never take them in the late afternoon or evening. It is also best to avoid consuming caffeine in the late afternoon as it can linger in your system for several hours.

TVs, smartphones, tablets, and computers can keep your mind stimulated, leaving you wired when you want to go to bed. The light emitted by these devices can also interfere with your circadian rhythm. As a result, it is best to avoid using electronic devices for an hour or more before bed.

Make the Most of the Day 

Getting frequent sunlight exposure during the day supports a healthy circadian rhythm that helps you be alert during the day and sleepy at night. Regular physical activity can also contribute to a normal sleep schedule, so try to engage in at least moderate exercise every day.

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