Our team of writers, editors, and medical experts rigorously evaluates each article to ensure the information is accurate and exclusively cites reputable sources. Learn More
We regularly assess how the content in this article aligns with current scientific literature and expert recommendations in order to provide the most up-to-date research.
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.
Are All Definitions of Sleep Deprivation the Same?
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.
Are There Different Types of Sleep Deprivation?
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, usually a few days or less, when a person has a significant reduction in their sleep time.
Chronic sleep deprivation, also known as insufficient sleep syndrome, is defined by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine as 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.
Is Sleep Deprivation Different From Insomnia?
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.
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 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:
Reduced attention span
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. 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.
What Are the Consequences of Sleep Deprivation?
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:
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 don’t 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 shown to lead 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 feeling that their pain is getting worse. Pain may cause further sleep interruptions, creating a negative cycle of worsening pain and sleep.
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.
BETTER SLEEP, FOR A BETTER YOU.
Trouble sleeping? Let us help.
Help Us Connect You To A Better Nights Sleep
Sleep is the foundation on which
mental and physical wellness is
built. Let us help improve your quality of life through better sleep.
On a scale of 1-10, how disruptive is your sleep quality to your
Select which best describes your sleep challenges or goals:
What elements of your sleep environment would you like to improve?
What best describes your sleep pain?
Curating Your Sleep Solutions
Treatment and Prevention
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.
Address Sleep Deprivation, Don’t Cope With It
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.
Make Sleep a Priority
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:
Have a consistent sleep schedule: You should strive to go to bed and wake up at the same times every day. In planning those times, make sure to budget time to get enough sleep. Once you’ve settled on your schedule, follow it closely, even on weekends. Stability in your sleep routine helps avoid fluctuations in your nightly sleep.
Set boundaries in your work and social life: It’s easy for the demands of your personal or professional life to chip away at your dedicated time for sleep, so it’s helpful to set boundaries so that you preserve the full time you need for rest each night.
Have a bedtime routine: Get yourself ready each night with the same steps such as quietly reading or stretching, putting on pajamas, and brushing your teeth.A steady bedtime routine can put you in the right frame of mind to sleep well each night.
Customize Your Bedroom Environment
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.
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:
Electronic devices: TVs, cell phones, tablets, and computers can keep your mind stimulated, leaving you still 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’s best to avoid using electronic devices for an hour or more before bed.
Alcohol: Drinking, especially at night, can disrupt your normal sleep cycle, reducing overall sleep quality and consistency.
Caffeine: As a stimulant, caffeine makes you alert, and because it can stick around in your system for several hours, it’s best to avoid it in the afternoon and evening.
Naps: To keep naps from interfering with sleep at night, keep them short (30 minutes or less) and never take them in the late afternoon or later. If you are struggling with insomnia, it’s best to avoid naps altogether.
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.
Eric Suni has over a decade of experience as a science writer and was previously an information specialist for the National Cancer Institute.
Dr. Dimitriu is the founder of Menlo Park Psychiatry and Sleep Medicine. He is board-certified in psychiatry as well as sleep medicine.
Sheehan, C. M., Frochen, S. E., Walsemann, K. M., & Ailshire, J. A. (2019). Are U.S. adults reporting less sleep?: Findings from sleep duration trends in the National Health Interview Survey, 2004-2017. Sleep, 42(2), zsy221.
Hirshkowitz, M., Whiton, K., Albert, S. M., Alessi, C., Bruni, O., DonCarlos, L., Hazen, N., Herman, J., Katz, E. S., Kheirandish-Gozal, L., Neubauer, D. N., O'Donnell, A. E., Ohayon, M., Peever, J., Rawding, R., Sachdeva, R. C., Setters, B., Vitiello, M. V., Ware, J. C., & Adams Hillard, P. J. (2015). National Sleep Foundation's sleep time duration recommendations: methodology and results summary. Sleep health, 1(1), 40–43.
American Academy of Sleep Medicine. (2014). The International Classification of Sleep Disorders – Third Edition (ICSD-3). Darien, IL.
Poudel, G. R., Innes, C. R., Bones, P. J., Watts, R., & Jones, R. D. (2014). Losing the struggle to stay awake: divergent thalamic and cortical activity during microsleeps. Human brain mapping, 35(1), 257–269.
Pires, G. N., Bezerra, A. G., Tufik, S., & Andersen, M. L. (2016). Effects of acute sleep deprivation on state anxiety levels: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Sleep medicine, 24, 109–118
Kuna, S. T., Maislin, G., Pack, F. M., Staley, B., Hachadoorian, R., Coccaro, E. F., & Pack, A. I. (2012). Heritability of performance deficit accumulation during acute sleep deprivation in twins. Sleep, 35(9), 1223–1233.
Grandner, M. A., Alfonso-Miller, P., Fernandez-Mendoza, J., Shetty, S., Shenoy, S., & Combs, D. (2016). Sleep: important considerations for the prevention of cardiovascular disease. Current opinion in cardiology, 31(5), 551–565.
Spiegel, K., Tasali, E., Leproult, R., & Van Cauter, E. (2009). Effects of poor and short sleep on glucose metabolism and obesity risk. Nature reviews. Endocrinology, 5(5), 253–261
Greer, S. M., Goldstein, A. N., & Walker, M. P. (2013). The impact of sleep deprivation on food desire in the human brain. Nature communications, 4, 2259.
Kim, T. W., Jeong, J. H., & Hong, S. C. (2015). The impact of sleep and circadian disturbance on hormones and metabolism. International journal of endocrinology, 2015, 591729.
Kim, T. W., Jeong, J. H., & Hong, S. C. (2015). The impact of sleep and circadian disturbance on hormones and metabolism. International journal of endocrinology, 2015, 591729
Scott, A. J., Webb, T. L., & Rowse, G. (2017). Does improving sleep lead to better mental health? A protocol for a meta-analytic review of randomised controlled trials. BMJ open, 7(9), e016873
Cappuccio, F. P., D'Elia, L., Strazzullo, P., & Miller, M. A. (2010). Sleep duration and all-cause mortality: a systematic review and meta-analysis of prospective studies. Sleep, 33(5), 585–592.
Lo, C. M., & Lee, P. H. (2012). Prevalence and impacts of poor sleep on quality of life and associated factors of good sleepers in a sample of older Chinese adults. Health and quality of life outcomes, 10, 72.
Institute of Medicine (US) Committee on Sleep Medicine and Research. (2006). Functional and Economic Impact of Sleep Loss and Sleep-Related Disorders. In H. R. Colten & B. M. Altevogt (Eds.), Sleep Disorders and Sleep Deprivation: An Unmet Public Health Problem (pp. 137–172). Retrieved from
Hafner, M., Stepanek, M., Taylor, J., Troxel, W. M., & van Stolk, C. (2017). Why Sleep Matters-The Economic Costs of Insufficient Sleep: A Cross-Country Comparative Analysis. Rand health quarterly, 6(4), 11.
Our editorial team is dedicated to providing content that meets the highest standards for accuracy and objectivity. Our editors and medical experts rigorously evaluate every article and guide to ensure the information is factual, up-to-date, and free of bias.
Our fact-checking guidelines are as follows:
We only cite reputable sources when researching our guides and articles. These include peer-reviewed journals, government reports, academic and medical associations, and interviews with credentialed medical experts and practitioners.
All scientific data and information must be backed up by at least one reputable source. Each guide and article includes a comprehensive bibliography with full citations and links to the original sources
Some guides and articles feature links to other relevant Sleep Foundation pages. These internal links are intended to improve ease of navigation across the site, and are never used as original sources for scientific data or information.
A member of our medical expert team provides a final review of the content and sources cited for every guide, article, and product review concerning medical- and health-related topics. Inaccurate or unverifiable information will be removed prior to publication.
Plagiarism is never tolerated. Writers and editors caught stealing content or improperly citing sources are immediately terminated, and we will work to rectify the situation with the original publisher(s).
Although Sleep Foundation maintains affiliate partnerships with brands and e-commerce portals, these relationships never have any bearing on our product reviews or recommendations. Read our full Advertising Disclosure for more information.
Eric Suni has over a decade of experience as a science writer and was previously an information specialist for the National Cancer Institute.