When you buy through our links, we may earn a commission. Products or services may be offered by an affiliated entity. Learn more.

About 20% of U.S. adults sleep fewer than five hours each night, even though experts recommend adults sleep for at least seven hours per night. In the long-term, this lack of sleep can come with steep consequences, including an increased risk of car crashes, workplace error, heart problems, reduced immune function, obesity, a lower quality of life, and an earlier death. 

We explore symptoms of sleep deprivation, the process of being diagnosed, and tips for treating and preventing this problem.

What Is Sleep Deprivation?

Experts reserve the term sleep deprivation for going a whole night without sleep or sleeping very little for one or two nights. What people often refer to as sleep deprivation in casual conversation is called “sleep insufficiency” by experts. When a person experiences sleep insufficiency, they either sleep for a shorter amount of time than their body requires to stay healthy or have low-quality sleep due to sleep disruptions. 

Sometimes people confuse sleep insufficiency and insomnia, since both involve sleeping less than the recommended amount. These two conditions are different, however. With sleep insufficiency, a person is physically able to sleep enough, but their schedule doesn’t allow it or for some other reason they aren’t given the opportunity. With insomnia, a person has ample opportunity to sleep, but they struggle to fall asleep, stay asleep, or both.

Sleep Deprivation Symptoms

Sleep deprivation and sleep insufficiency often produce many symptoms, including:

  • Reduced alertness and slow reaction times
  • Trouble paying attention 
  • Reduced cognitive ability and impaired logical reasoning 
  • Mood changes, including irritability  
  • Anxiety 
  • Depression 
  • Reduced sex drive 
  • Poor judgment 
  • Brief daytime sleep periods, called microsleeps 
  • Unplanned naps 
  • Reduced quality of life 
  • Reduced social activity due to tiredness 

When a person experiences sleep deprivation or insufficiency due to not sleeping for a long enough time, they may find themselves sleeping longer on their days off of work or days without social plans. If a person sleeps much longer than usual on weekends or vacations, that could be a sign they aren’t getting enough sleep on regular nights.

How Does Your Sleep Measure Up?
Get Your Free Sleep Foundation Score™ and Profile

How Sleep Deprivation Happens

Sleep deprivation and sleep insufficiency can stem from many factors. Sometimes they are the result of poor habits surrounding sleep. For example, an inconsistent sleep schedule, long daytime naps, the use of digital devices before bed, and a noisy or bright sleep environment can all interfere with a person’s ability to get enough sleep.

If a person experiences sleep deprivation or insufficiency as a result of too little time spent sleeping, that may result from their work schedule or social obligations. Sometimes substances a person consumes, like caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine, lead to obtaining less sleep. Various illnesses, including sleep disorders, and prescription medications can also cause a person to fall short on sleep.

“Sleep deprivation is a high interest loan with steep payments in the form of health consequences.”
Headshot of Dr. Abhinav Singh
Dr. Abhinav Singh
Sleep Medicine Physician, MD

Effects of Sleep Deprivation

Sleep deprivation and insufficiency can cause many negative effects, especially if they continue over time.

  • Mental impairment: A person who isn’t getting enough sleep becomes less alert and struggles to focus their attention. Reaction times become slower, logical reasoning worsens, and the ability to perform tasks like reading complex sentences and doing simple math worsens. These changes occur after even one night of short sleep.
  • Mood changes: When falling short on sleep, a person is more likely to experience symptoms of anxiety and depression. They may feel like they are in a bad mood, have less interest in sex, and struggle to make good judgments.
  • Microsleeps and tiredness: When a person is sleep-deprived or very tired during the day, they may experience microsleeps. A microsleep involves falling asleep without planning to for a short period, such as for only a few seconds. Microsleeps can be very dangerous if they occur while a person is driving.
  • Car crashes and work mistakes: Because of the mental impairment and microsleeps caused by sleep deprivation, people who are short on sleep face a higher risk of car crashes and errors at work.
  • Health problems: Not getting enough sleep or good enough quality of sleep can lead to many health problems, including heart problems. Sleep insufficiency may also cause inflammation and reduce the immune system’s ability to fight infections. Short sleep is also linked to obesity, a slower metabolism, and death of any cause.

Can You Die From Sleep Deprivation? 

While it is uncommon for people to die directly from a lack of sleep, chronic sleep deprivation can contribute to a range of health problems that may become life-threatening. Sleep deprivation also increases the risk of serious car crashes, falls, and workplace accidents due to the associated cognitive impairments.

How Is Sleep Deprivation Diagnosed?

Doctors diagnose insufficient sleep syndrome, which includes sleep deprivation, when a person meets six criteria.

  • Falls asleep during the day
  • Sleeps less than recommended for their age group
  • Sleeps less than recommended most nights for at least three months
  • Wakes up due to an alarm or another person when they could continue sleeping
  • Symptoms resolve when they can sleep more
  • Symptoms aren’t caused by a sleep disorder, a health problem, or drug use or withdrawal

A doctor usually begins checking if a person has sleep deprivation or sleep insufficiency by asking about their history. Questions may be about sleep and wake patterns, work schedules, sleep quality, daytime napping habits, and fatigue or tiredness. They may also ask a person to keep a sleep diary, which is a log of daily sleep patterns. An actigraphy can also be used when a sleep diary is difficult to keep or doesn’t provide answers. An actigraphy is a watch-like device that provides insights about sleep by recording movement.

A doctor may also ask about other symptoms, in order to rule out sleep disorders and other illnesses. If another disorder is suspected, further testing, including a sleep study, may be recommended.

Sleep Deprivation Treatment and Prevention

The best way to treat and prevent sleep deprivation is to get enough sleep. Experts recommend that adults sleep for at least seven hours each night. The ideal amount of sleep varies from person-to-person though, and some people could need up to nine hours or even more. Here are tips for getting adequate sleep:

  • Go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day 
  • Follow a calming bedtime routine every night in the hour or two before bed 
  • Avoid using digital devices before bed and during any nighttime awakenings 
  • Only take daytime naps that are shorter than 30 minutes 
  • Engage in exercise every day for at least 20 minutes  
  • Keep the bedroom dark, cool, and quiet
  • Choose a mattress, bedding, and pillows you find comfortable 
  • Avoid caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine in the evening 

If following these tips doesn’t help, experts recommend seeing a doctor to determine what might be causing your short sleep, daytime tiredness, and any other symptoms.

Learn more about our Editorial Team

5 Sources

  1. Cirelli, C. (February 2024). Insufficient sleep: Definition, epidemiology, and adverse outcomes. In R. Benca & A. Eichler (Ed.). UpToDate.

  2. Maski, C. (February 2024). Insufficient sleep: Evaluation and Management. In T. Scammell & A. Eichler (Ed.). UpToDate.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. Consensus Conference Panel, Watson, N. F., Badr, M. S., Belenky, G., Bliwise, D. L., Buxton, O. M., Buysse, D., Dinges, D. F., Gangwisch, J., Grandner, M. A., Kushida, C., Malhotra, R. K., Martin, J. L., Patel, S. R., Quan, S. F., Tasali, E., Non-Participating Observers, Twery, M., Croft, J. B., Maher, E., … Heald, J. L. (2015). Recommended amount of sleep for a healthy adult: A joint consensus statement of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and Sleep Research Society. Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, 11(6), 591–592.


Learn More About Sleep Deprivation