Sleep Deprivation


More than one-third of American adults fail to get enough sleep on a regular basis. Among young people that number is even higher, with 73% of high schoolers failing to get enough sleep on school nights and 58% of middle schoolers sleeping less than the recommended amount for their age group.

When you miss out on sleep, you are likely to experience the effects of sleep deprivation. Sleep deprivation can affect your daytime functioning and contribute to long-term health consequences such as diabetes, obesity, and depression. We discuss how to know if you are sleep-deprived and how to take steps to improve your sleep.

What Is Sleep Deprivation?

Sleep deprivation arises when a person does not get enough sleep. The effects of sleep deprivation include impaired performance, reduced alertness, and poorer health. A reduction in either sleep quantity or sleep quality can lead to sleep deprivation.

Symptoms of Sleep Deprivation

Feeling sleepy during the day may be the most common symptom of sleep deprivation, but sleep deprivation can manifest in other ways as well. Sleep deprivation symptoms include:

  • Excessive daytime sleepiness
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Forgetfulness or memory issues
  • Weight gain
  • Feeling irritable or depressed
  • Decreased creativity

Research indicates there may be a genetic component that makes certain people more likely to experience performance deficits from sleep deprivation.

Causes of Sleep Deprivation

Sleep deprivation can happen when you do not get enough sleep overall, or when your sleep is not restful. The following behaviors and health conditions can contribute to poorer-quality or insufficient sleep:

  • Poor sleep hygiene
  • Sleep disorders such as insomnia, restless legs syndrome, and sleep apnea
  • Medications
  • Changes
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Underlying mental and physical health conditions
  • Chronic pain
  • Long work hours that overlap with sleep time

Effects of Sleep Deprivation

You can feel the effects of sleep deprivation after just one night of poor sleep. It is common to feel sleepy, and less productive at work or school. You may notice changes in your appetite that cause you to gravitate towards less healthy foods. This is your body responding to increased levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. No matter how many energy drinks or cups of coffee you have, you may feel less creative and simply not at your best.

People who are sleep-deprived are more likely to take sick days, make errors, and get injured. For example, one study found that doctors who regularly work 24-hour shifts make 36% more medical errors than their well-rested peers. They also have double the chances of experiencing an automobile accident on their way home from work. Athletes operating on poor sleep have slower reaction times and may experience significant reductions in performance.

Long-term sleep deprivation is thought to cause changes in the brain that make it more difficult to recover. Chronic sleep deprivation is associated with higher cortisol levels, lower testosterone, and increased inflammation, which in turn are linked to type 2 diabetes, hypertension, obesity, depression, anxiety, and an increased risk of heart attack and stroke.

Treatment for Sleep Deprivation

If an underlying condition is contributing to your sleep deprivation, your health provider will treat that condition, whether it is a mental health disorder, medical condition, or sleep disorder. If there is no underlying condition contributing to your sleep deprivation, you may be diagnosed with insomnia, which can be exacerbated by age-related sleep disruptions, stress, and other factors.

In addition to treating any underlying conditions, your doctor may recommend lifestyle changes, better sleep hygiene, and medication to promote sleep or wakefulness as appropriate.

Tips for Better Sleep

Certain strategies may help to prevent sleep deprivation and promote better-quality sleep.

Know How Much Sleep You Need

To avoid the effects of sleep deprivation, it’s important to follow age-appropriate sleep recommendations. The National Sleep Foundation recommends seven to nine hours per night for adults, eight to 10 hours for teenagers, and nine to 11 hours for elementary school children.

Make Time for Sleep

Following a regular sleep schedule can reduce your likelihood of short sleep. Create a sleep schedule that gives you enough room to sleep for at least seven hours per night. Follow it consistently, going to bed and waking up at the same time every day even on the weekends.

Wind Down at Night

To make it easier to fall asleep, dedicate the last 30 to 60 minutes of your night to a bedtime routine. Fill your bedtime routine with calming, relaxing activities like turning down the lights, meditation, reading, or listening to music. Turn off electronics, including televisions, computers, and smartphones. The light from these devices and their stimulating content are associated with later bedtimes and short sleep.

Keep Your Bedroom Cool, Dark, and Quiet

Most people sleep better in a  bedroom that is comfortably cool, so set your thermostat between 66 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit or use a fan or air conditioning if you live in a warm climate. Too much noise and light can also disturb sleep. Turn off electronics in your bedroom and consider using blackout curtains or a white noise machine if needed.

Eat Well and Exercise During the Day

Regular exercise and a healthy diet are associated with better sleep. Avoiding rich foods before bedtime is especially important for people who experience heartburn. It is also a good idea to limit caffeine and alcohol consumption in the afternoon and evening, and avoid drinking too many liquids close to bedtime.

Sleep deprivation is usually treatable. If you are experiencing sleep problems, talk to your doctor. They can work with you to identify what is contributing to your sleep problems and recommend treatment options.


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