Do You Have Insufficient Sleep Syndrome?


Although the importance of sleep is widely known, it’s estimated that almost 30% of American adults receive less than six hours of sleep each day (1). Sleep requirements vary from person to person, but the American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends that adults routinely obtain seven hours or more of sleep each night. Adolescents typically need between eight and 10 hours of sleep nightly (2).

Insufficient sleep syndrome occurs when you regularly don’t get enough sleep at night (3), resulting in symptoms related to sleep deprivation. Work, school, family and household responsibilities, and other obligations can interfere with getting enough rest, which can cause a notable sleep deficit (4) on weekdays. Insufficient sleep syndrome differs from insomnia and other sleep disorders because it commonly stems from lifestyle factors rather than an illness or medication side effects.

What Are the Symptoms of Insufficient Sleep Syndrome?

Sleep deprivation can lead to a range of cognitive, behavioral, and physical problems (5). These include lethargy, reduced alertness, mood disorders, impaired coordination, and memory issues. Excessive sleepiness, or being unable to resist falling asleep during normal daytime activities, is a tell-tale sign of chronic sleep deprivation. These symptoms are linked to increased automobile and work accidents and poor social outcomes (6).

Insufficient sleep syndrome poses a number of health risks, including obesity and metabolic syndrome (7). Long-term sleep deprivation is also associated with hypertension, inflammation, and an altered circadian rhythm. Furthermore, a number of studies link insufficient sleep with a shorter lifespan.

Sleep deprivation symptoms can vary among adults, adolescents, and children. When sleep-deprived, children may experience more behavioral problems, such as hyperactivity, decreased concentration, emotional outbursts, and impulsivity. Shortened sleep in adolescents can increase the risk of mood disorders, suicidal ideation, and cardio-metabolic disorders, as well as reduce executive functions like self-control and motivation.

What Are Risk Factors for Developing Insufficient Sleep Syndrome?

Insufficient sleep syndrome can affect anyone, but some people are more susceptible than others. Young adults, minorities, and people with lower socioeconomic status are thought to have higher rates of sleep deprivation.

Long work schedules, irregular shifts, or occupations that require regular travel can all contribute to a sleep deficit. Adolescents are especially prone to insufficient sleep syndrome for both behavioral and biological reasons. Puberty can cause changes in circadian rhythm, but excessive caffeine consumption, electronic device use, and extracurricular activities can also reduce sleep duration and quality.

How Do I Know if I Have Insufficient Sleep Syndrome?

It’s perfectly normal to undersleep or feel tired every now and then, but consistently getting less than six hours of sleep for three months or more may point to insufficient sleep syndrome. Nodding off while at work or school, driving, or in the middle of a conversation are signs of sleep deprivation to be taken seriously. Insufficient sleep syndrome is also indicated if symptoms resolve during periods of catch-up sleep, such as on holidays or weekends.

What Is the Treatment for Insufficient Sleep Syndrome?

If other sleep disorders can be ruled out, then treatment for insufficient sleep syndrome often involves lifestyle and behavioral changes to increase sleep duration and consistency. Improving sleep hygiene with the following practices should help resolve symptoms:

  • Maintain a consistent sleep schedule, including on weekends
  • Avoid using a computer, phone, or other electronic device before bed
  • Exercise for at least 20 to 30 minutes each day
  • Avoid strenuous exercise or heavy meals late at night
  • Have realistic schedule commitments
  • Limit caffeine and alcohol consumption, especially late in the day

How Does Insufficient Sleep Syndrome Differ From Insomnia and Other Sleep Disorders?

Since symptoms result from sleep deprivation, it can be difficult to distinguish insufficient sleep syndrome from insomnia and other sleep disorders. Insufficient sleep syndrome is behaviorally induced and is not typically associated with sleep disorders, untreated medical issues, mental illness, or drugs and medication.

A person suffering from insomnia or other sleep disorders will often struggle with sleep quantity and quality despite the opportunity and desire to sleep. With insufficient sleep syndrome, however, a person can typically sleep without problem when given the chance. As a result, insufficient sleep syndrome symptoms usually subside during periods of extended sleep, such as on weekends or holidays.

When Should I Contact My Doctor?

If you continually experience symptoms related to sleep deprivation for two or more months, or have noticed any other changes to your health or have developed new symptoms that may be due to insufficient sleep, it’s a good idea to address these concerns with a physician. Your healthcare provider can run tests to rule out underlying conditions or other sleep disorders. Keeping a log of hours slept and related symptoms can be useful information to have on hand when speaking to your doctor.

While insufficient sleep syndrome has adverse consequences, making lifestyle changes to prioritize sleep can reverse these effects.

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