Almost everyone has encountered a zombie-like feeling after a night of minimal or no sleep. 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.
Sleep deprivation is when you don’t get the sleep you need, and it is It’s estimated to affect around one-third of American adults , a problem that has only worsened in recent years.
Lack of sleep directly affects how we think and feel. While the short-term impacts are more noticeable, chronic sleep deprivation can heighten the long-term risk of physical and mental health problems.
To avoid these problems, it’s important to avoid sleep deprivation. Understanding this condition, including its causes, symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment can put you in a better position to ensure that you’re getting the sleep you need.
The term sleep deprivation refers to getting less than the needed amount of sleep, which, for adults, ranges from seven to nine hours of sleep per night. Children and teens need even more nightly sleep than adults.
In sleep medicine, sleep deprivation is defined based on sleep duration, which is the total amount of time a person spends asleep. In reality, though, 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.
In this way, sleep deficiency has a broader application. 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.
This terminology can be distinct from everyday conversation in which the term sleep deprivation may be used with a wider meaning that refers to poor sleep overall and not just total sleep duration.
Even in the medical field, studies may use different technical definitions of sleep deprivation as some classify it as seven hours of sleep or fewer while others use six hours as the cutoff.
Sleep deprivation and sleep insufficiency may be categorized in different ways depending on a person’s circumstances.
While both insomnia and sleep deprivation involve failing to get enough sleep, many experts in sleep science make a distinction between them. People with insomnia have trouble sleeping even when they have plenty of time to sleep. On the other hand, people with sleep deprivation don’t have enough time allocated for sleep as a result of behavior choices or everyday obligations.
An illustration of this difference is that people who are sleep deprived because of a busy work schedule usually have no problems sleeping longer on weekends to try to “catch up” on sleep. Someone with insomnia, though, still struggles to sleep despite having the opportunity to do so.
There can be considerable overlap between how sleep deprivation and insomnia are described, but patients should be aware that their doctor or a sleep specialist may use more specific definitions.
Sleep deprivation is often 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 induces dozens of nightly awakenings, may hinder both sleep duration and quality. Other medical or mental health problems, such as pain or general anxiety disorder, can interfere with the quality and quantity of sleep.
The primary signs and symptoms 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 signs 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 matter of seconds.
Insufficient sleep can directly affect how a person feels during their waking hours. Examples of these symptoms include:
A person’s symptoms can depend on the extent of their sleep deprivation and whether it is acute or chronic. Research also suggests that some individuals are more likely to experience symptoms after a lack of sleep and that this may be tied to a person’s genetics. Stimulants like caffeine can also mask the symptoms of sleep deprivation, so it’s important to note how you feel on and off these substances.
The effects of sleep deprivation and sleep deficiency can be serious and far-reaching.
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.
Chronic sleep deprivation can contribute to a wide range of health problems. Sleep plays a fundamental role in the effective functioning of nearly all systems of the body, so a persistent lack of sleep creates significant risks to physical and mental health:
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.
On a society-wide level, the impacts of sleep deprivation are enormous. The CDC estimates that as many as 6,000 deaths each year are caused by drowsy driving, and sleep deprivation has been calculated to incur hundreds of billions in added healthcare costs as well as over $400B in productivity losses per year in the United States alone.
Doctors can often diagnose sleep deprivation by discussing a patient’s symptoms and sleep patterns. This may involve reviewing 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.
If you have ongoing or worsening problems with insufficient sleep or daytime sleepiness, working with your doctor is a good first step to getting 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. The following sections outline some key sleep hygiene improvements for people who get insufficient sleep.
Many people get insufficient sleep because they accept sleep deprivation as normal. Rather than take the necessary steps to sleep more, they drink caffeine or energy drinks, nap, or simply try to “power through.”
None of these approaches is a sustainable solution 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 refuse to accept a lack of sleep as normal and instead focus on sleeping more and getting higher quality rest.
Chronic insufficient sleep often occurs when people choose to sacrifice sleep in favor of work, leisure, or other obligations. To counteract this, it’s critical to take steps to make sleep a priority:
Design your bedroom environment to be ideal for your relaxation. You’re less likely to avoid going to bed if your sleep setting is inviting and suits your comfort preferences.
Your mattress and pillows 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.
A useful step in addressing sleep deprivation is to avoid things that can, often unbeknownst to you, negatively affect your sleep:
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.