Sleep is a vital component to a healthy life.
Similar to your diet and level of exercise, sleep plays a huge role in both your physical and mental health. Your mind and body continue to work while you sleep, as they recharge from the previous day and prepare you for the next.
However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that roughly one in three Americans regularly doesn’t get enough sleep. There are myriad issues that can be caused by a poor night’s sleep—including irritability and mood swings—but consistently getting less than the CDC’s recommended seven hours per night can also lead to a more serious problem: sleep deprivation.
What Is Sleep Deprivation?
Sleep deprivation occurs when you regularly don’t get enough sleep to feel rested, awake, and alert. The ideal amount of sleep a person should get will vary based on the individual, and a number of things can cause sleep deprivation. These causes might include medical conditions, problematic scheduling, or even poor bedtime habits that keep you from giving yourself enough time to fall asleep.
While almost everyone experiences the effects of too little or poor quality sleep at some point in their lives, the effects of sleep deprivation are more serious than those of a single restless night. In fact, sleep deprivation is closely linked to insomnia, and it may require changes to your lifestyle or the help of a medical professional to properly address the issue.
What Is Insomnia?
Insomnia is a sleep disorder primarily characterized by the inability to fall or stay asleep, even when presented with the opportunity to do so. People with insomnia may have trouble falling asleep, wake up too early in the morning, wake up in the middle of the night and have difficulty going back to sleep, or feel tired and unrested upon waking.
Individual experiences with insomnia often differ, but there are three main types. Each type is defined by the length of time you are experiencing insomnia. The three main kinds of insomnia are:
- Transient insomnia: This kind of insomnia usually only lasts for a few days. There may be a sudden change or trigger that causes it, such as jet lag or stress about an upcoming event. Normal sleep often resumes after you adjust to the change or remove the trigger.
- Acute insomnia: Also called short-term insomnia, this type can last for several weeks or up to a month. You may have a longer-term issue or stressor that is preventing you from sleeping, such as the loss of a loved one or a recurring problem at work. Acute insomnia is slightly more difficult to treat than transient insomnia.
- Chronic insomnia: Any kind of insomnia that lasts longer than a month is considered chronic insomnia. Depending on the cause, it can last for months or even years. Chronic insomnia can be caused by other medical conditions, and may represent a medical condition in and of itself. You will likely need the help of a medical professional to treat this kind of insomnia.
Though the terms “insomnia” and “sleep deprivation” are often used interchangeably, they are not the same thing. Insomnia is a sleep disorder, but sleep deprivation is a condition caused by not getting enough sleep. Whereas insomnia is not a choice, you might experience sleep deprivation because of poor choices you make, such as staring at screens before bed or not going to sleep at a reasonable hour.
Insomnia can contribute to sleep deprivation. While you may not experience the effects of sleep deprivation from transient insomnia, you may begin to feel them if you are dealing with acute or chronic insomnia. The more severe your insomnia is, the more pronounced your symptoms will be, and the more severely you will feel the effects of sleep deprivation.
Causes of Sleep Deprivation and Insomnia
There are a variety of factors and issues that can cause sleep deprivation and insomnia. Each individual’s experience will vary; what causes insomnia or sleep deprivation in your friend or sibling may not have the same effect on you.
If you begin to have trouble sleeping, it’s important to be aware of what could be causing your restless nights. Some of the most common causes of insomnia include:
- Stress: If you are stressed about something in your life, you may find yourself worrying about it as you try to fall asleep at night. Both minor stressors and major concerns or life events can lead to insomnia.
- Sleep habits: Inconsistent or poor sleep habits can make it more difficult for you to fall asleep. Things like an irregular bedtime, afternoon naps, doing work or watching TV in bed can all impact your ability to fall asleep and can cause insomnia.
- Changes in sleep schedule: If your sleep schedule changes suddenly — due to jet lag, or a change in your work hours, for example — or frequently, it may cause insomnia.
- Medical conditions: Both physical and mental health conditions can cause insomnia because they make sleep difficult, uncomfortable, or seemingly impossible.
- Caffeine, alcohol, and medication: Caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, and certain medications can all make going to or staying asleep difficult, especially if they are consumed in the afternoon or evening. Even if you do fall asleep, these substances may prevent you from getting the quality sleep you need to feel rested.
- Stimulation before bedtime: Too much activity right before going to bed can cause insomnia. Exercising, showering, using mobile devices or computers, or playing video games can be stimulating, which makes falling asleep difficult.
Though there may be some overlap, sleep deprivation and insomnia are not necessarily caused by the same things. Some common causes of sleep deprivation are:
- Voluntary behaviors: You may choose to restrict your sleep for a variety of reasons, such as to attend a party, watch a movie late at night, or enjoy a hobby. If you consistently choose to go to bed late or wake up early, you may become sleep deprived.
- Work hours: Certain jobs may require you to stay up late, get up early, or work overnight. If you regularly have to work outside of regular daytime hours, you may not be able to get as much sleep as you need during the work week.
- School commitments: Children and teenagers tend to require more sleep than adults. Adolescents, in particular, may experience sleep deprivation, as they tend to fall asleep later at night than adults, but must wake up early to go to school. If you routinely stay up late to study or go to sleep late but have to wake up early, you might begin to feel the effects of sleep deprivation.
- Environment: Your sleep environment can also affect the amount and quality of sleep you get. If you experience continuous disruptions due to your environment — perhaps because you live in a noisy neighborhood, a bright light shines into your bedroom window, or your partner snores — it can cause sleep deprivation.
- Personal obligations: You may have personal obligations that restrict your ability to sleep. Caretakers who have to provide overnight care for a family member or parents whose newborn wakes up multiple times in the night, for example, may become sleep deprived.
- Medical conditions: Whether you have short-term illness like a cold, or a chronic illness like insomnia, a health condition that disrupts your sleep can cause sleep deprivation.
Symptoms of Sleep Deprivation
Sleep deprivation can lead to certain negative effects on your mind and body. From your mood to your memory, it may even begin to impact almost every part of your day. It affects everyone differently, and the types of symptoms you might experience will depend on the severity of your deprivation. Some of the most common symptoms include:
- Daytime sleepiness
- Moodiness, irritability, or depressed mood
- General fatigue
- Lack of motivation
- Struggling or inability to concentrate
- Impaired performance
- Issues with high-level cognitive functions like organization and memory
- General discomfort or feeling unwell
- Confusion or disorientation
- Hallucinations and paranoia
Symptoms in Adults
There are certain symptoms of sleep deprivation that adults may experience, but that children and adolescents may not. Generally speaking, if you’re an adult experiencing sleep deprivation, you’ll slow down, feel tired, and have greater difficulty performing tasks during the day. These are some of the biggest signs of sleep deprivation in adults:
- Dozing off when inactive
- Frequent yawning
- Sleepiness or grogginess during the day
- Poor concentration
- Mood swings and irritability
Symptoms in Children
Children are affected by sleep deprivation much differently than adults. Whereas adults slow down and typically feel lethargic, kids may become more active and energetic when sleep deprived. The following symptoms can help you identify sleep deprivation in children:
- Irritability and moodiness
- Temper tantrums or sudden outbursts
- Napping during the day
- Hyperactive behavior or over-activity
- Grogginess or reluctance to get up upon waking
Stages of Sleep Deprivation
Sleep deprivation does not occur all at once; in fact, your symptoms can vary greatly depending on how long you have gone without sleep. Typically, the side effects of sleep deprivation will intensify the longer you have been awake. Here’s a breakdown of the different stages of sleep deprivation, and what symptoms one can expect to experience, as well as how sleep loss affects your body, at each stage:
After 24 Hours
Going a full day without sleep is not uncommon, and though it may not be the most enjoyable experience, it won’t be a huge detriment to your health. However, you will still feel the effects of sleep deprivation at this stage, and it does have an impact on your mental and physical health.
At this stage, you will likely feel drowsy and irritable. Your ability to make decisions or use sound judgement will decrease, as will your ability to recall and form memories, and you may feel more emotional. Your hand-eye coordination will decline after 24 hours without sleep, which increases your risk for near-misses or fatal car accidents. One study actually found that this level of sleep deprivation is similar to having a blood alcohol concentration of 0.10 percent, which is above the legal driving limit in most states.
You may also experience tremors, impaired vision and hearing, and a generally altered sense of perception. While these consequences may sound severe for only one night of missed sleep, most of these symptoms will go away after a full night of quality rest, and won’t have any long-term effects on your health.
After 36 Hours
The effects of sleep deprivation get far more intense after an additional 12 hours without any shut-eye. After 36 hours, sleep deprivation poses a much greater threat to your health and well-being. At this point, the regulation of some of your hormones, including cortisol and insulin, can change due to the shift in your sleep cycle. This can affect your bodily functions, including your appetite, metabolism, temperature regulation, and stress level.
Your memory may become severely impaired at this stage. You will probably also begin to feel extremely fatigued, lose motivation, and experience even greater impairment in regards to judgment, decision-making, and your ability to pay attention or concentrate. You may even have difficulty speaking, and may particularly struggle with your word choice and intonation.
Your appetite often changes at this stage of sleep deprivation, and you may also find yourself craving carbohydrates and fatty or sugary foods. While you may be able to mitigate the effects of sleep deprivation by eating lean sources of protein and properly hydrating, going to sleep is the only way to reverse its effects.
After 48 Hours
When you go two full days without sleep, it will become increasingly difficult to actually stay awake. At this stage, you may being to experience “microsleeps,” in which your body essentially falls asleep for up to 30 seconds at a time. During a microsleep, your brain enters a state similar to actual sleep, and you may feel confused and disoriented upon “waking.”
Additionally, sleep deprivation to this degree can compromise and disrupt your immune system. Research suggests that the activity of cells that fight viruses and bacteria decreases after 48 hours without sleep, which makes you more likely to get sick.
After 72 Hours
The effects of sleep deprivation become even more serious after 72 hours without sleep. Your cognitive functions greatly decrease, and you may have even more difficulty paying attention, staying motivated, and completing ordinarily simple tasks. You are also more likely to feel irritated, anxious, depressed, or paranoid.
After three days without sleep, you may also begin to experience hallucinations or illusions. Though similar, hallucinations occur when you see or hear something that isn’t there, and illusions are a misperception of something that is actually here. At this point, you may struggle to stay awake, if you are able to at all.
Populations at High Risk for Sleep Deprivation
Anyone can experience sleep deprivation at one point or another, but there are certain groups who are at greater risk than others. Typically, these populations have lifestyles or conditions that leave them vulnerable to restricted or disrupted sleep. There are specific reasons that put each of the following groups at a greater risk of being sleep deprived than the general population.
New parents may become sleep deprived for months due their newfound responsibilities. One study estimated that you can lose up to 44 days of sleep in the first year of your baby’s life. Between maintaining a feeding schedule and comforting a crying infant, that same study estimates that you lose almost three hours of sleep every night. This doesn’t encompass other causes of sleep deprivation, such as insomnia or a work schedule, that may co-occur with sleep loss inherent to new parents.
In particular, new parents may struggle to get adequate sleep because of how their newborn baby’s sleep patterns differ from their own. Infant sleep cycles run just under an hour, while that of an adult lasts for about 90 minutes. This results in babies sleeping for a shorter amount of time, throughout the day and night — and leaves them unable to get the uninterrupted, deep sleep you need.
There are a few ways you can improve the amount and quality of their sleep, no matter how many times you have to check on your baby during the night:
- Try to make up for your lost sleep when possible, such as when the baby is napping during the day, or by getting extra sleep on the weekends. It may be tempting to do housework, but it could be more beneficial to simply catch up on some much-needed rest.
- Try to alternate feedings in the middle of the night. While mothers may feel the need to take on all of the feedings — especially if their partner works outside of the home — you can ensure at least one parent gets some rest by alternating nighttime feedings.
- Ask a friend or family member to come over and help out. If the baby is awake, they can babysit while the parent naps; if the baby is also napping, they can help take care of some of your chores while the both parties rest.
Both high school and college students may have a higher risk of becoming sleep deprived. Between the demands of your coursework, extracurricular activities, and other responsibilities, it can be difficult for you to find time to relax, be social, and get adequate sleep. You may choose to stay up late for a variety of reasons, such as to go to parties, play video games or watch TV, or to study and complete homework.
Research has shown that pulling an all-nighter to finish an assignment or study for a big exam may not be the best choice for students’ health or grades. Students with irregular sleep times are more likely to have lower grades, and considering all of the detrimental side effects of sleep deprivation on cognitive performance, a late-night cram session may do you more harm than good. Generally, you’ll do better on your test if you go to sleep instead of studying late at night.
You may be able to improve your sleep habits while ensuring you meet the demands of your coursework by creating and adhering to a study schedule. Build blocks of time into your schedule that you can devote to studying during the day to ensure you can finish all of your assignments without restricting your sleep. And if you truly need an extra hour or two to study before a big test, try waking up early and studying the morning of.
As a group, adolescents are also at a greater risk of sleep deprivation. Teenagers’ circadian rhythms differ from that of adults; their body doesn’t start producing melatonin, a sleep hormone, until late in the evening. This results in teenagers being unable to fall asleep until later in the night, and often sleeping in much later in the morning than an adult would. In addition, teens typically need more sleep than adults to feel rested; while most adults feel rested after seven to eight hours of sleep, many adolescents need between eight and ten hours of sleep each night.
Researchers have found that over 90 percent of high schools and 80 percent of middle schools start before 8:30 in the morning, however, which makes it even more difficult to get a full night’s rest. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that middle and high schools start at 8:30 AM, if not later, to help ensure that they get enough rest, but the overwhelming majority of adolescents do not have that luxury.
While you may not be able to do much about school start times, there are other ways to combat sleep deprivation as a teenager:
- Regular bedtimes and wake times, even on the weekends, can make falling asleep easier.
- Staying off of electronic devices — including televisions, mobile devices, and computers — before bed can both remove the temptation to stay up late.
- Dimming the lighting in your bedroom can help stimulate the production of melatonin and make it easier to fall asleep.
Healthcare professionals, such as doctors and nurses, are also at a much greater risk of being sleep deprived than the general population. They often have to work notoriously long shifts, sometimes up to 12 or even 24 hours at a time. While working, they must always be on their feet, thinking critically, and trying to provide the best possible patient care — which can be completely exhausting. Because they sleep less, your ability to provide care can decline, putting your patients at a much greater risk of medical harm.
Studies have found that both nurses and medical residents made significantly more medical errors when working more than 12 and 24 hour shifts, respectively. Due to the demands of their jobs, it can be difficult to improve the amount and quality of their sleep. As such, it is vital for healthcare professionals to maintain healthy sleep habits when they are not working to help ensure they get the rest they need and avoid the effects of sleep deprivation.
Similar to healthcare workers, sleep deprivation is a major threat to caregivers. Whether they’ve been hired to provide care to a client or are taking care of a friend or relative, it’s their responsibility to meet the needs of the dependent. This can be disruptive to a natural sleep cycle in a number of ways, from needing to provide care late in the night or early in the morning, to needing to periodically check on the client throughout the night.
Sleep deprivation can also make it more difficult for them to perform their duties due to sleepiness and impaired cognitive functions, especially if they have other commitments or a job on top of their responsibilities as a caretaker. Caregivers should maintain healthy sleep habits when they aren’t required to provide care to avoid sleep deprivation and its side effects. In addition, they should also familiarize themselves with their own limitations as a caregiver and ask for additional help if they begin to feel overwhelmed and need to rest.
Long-Haul Truck Drivers
Long-haul truck drivers are another group who may have trouble getting enough sleep due to the demands of your job. They have strict deadlines to meet and must always be engaged and attentive when driving. They may even have to drive overnight to deliver cargo on time, leaving little time to rest. If they fall asleep at the wheel, not only do they put themselves at risk of serious injury, they can also cause great harm to others on the road.
Though there are policies in place to protect truck drivers from being overworked, there are a few extra precautions that they can take to avoid sleep deprivation:
- It’s important to get as much sleep as possible before driving sessions to make sure they’re as as rested as possible.
- Allow themselves some sleep whenever they’re tired. As a driver, you may not have a consistent sleep schedule; to get enough rest, sleep when your body tells you to, even if it’s not at night.
- Pay attention to your mental condition when driving. If you begin to feel tired while behind the wheel, it’s important to pull over and rest at the first signs of drowsiness or conscious impairment.
Shift workers, or people who work multiple jobs, may also become sleep deprived more easily than others. They may often have to deal with unexpected shift changes, which can make maintaining a regular sleep schedule difficult, or they may have to go from one job to the next without any time to rest in between. Because of the time of their shifts, or sudden changes to your schedule, they may quickly notice the effects of sleep deprivation as a shift worker.
While they may not be able to control the length or time of their shifts, there are several things they can do as a shift worker to improve their sleep and cope with sleep deprivation:
- Take naps during your breaks or downtime while on shift. Some employers may not allow this, or it may simply not be possible in specific work environments. Napping, however, can help employees feel more rested and ready to finish their shift.
- Try to be active during the shift, or during your breaks (if napping isn't an option), to help stay awake. Go for walks, exercise, or otherwise stay on your feet if you can.
- Maintain healthy sleep habits when possible, and do your best to get as much sleep as you need when you aren’t working. This will help you feel more rested before you even begin your shift.
People With Certain Medical Conditions
Whether physical or mental, certain medical conditions put you at greater risk of experiencing sleep deprivation. The way health conditions can impact your sleep varies; for example, while bipolar disorder might make it more difficult to fall and stay asleep, sleep apnea results in sleep that is not restful. Other common conditions that could put you at greater risk of sleep deprivation include:
- Heart disease
- Heartburn or GERD
- Eating disorders
- Kidney disease
- Thyroid disease
The way each of these conditions can impact your sleep varies, and while there may be at-home solutions to help you sleep, it’s important to discuss with your doctor how your condition affects your sleep. They may be able to provide additional information or remedies to your sleep problems to ensure you are well-rested.
Other Sleep Disorders
Sleep deprivation can be comorbid with other common sleep disorders. Here are some of the most common:
- Sleep apnea
- Restless legs syndrome
- Sleep walking
- Sleep paralysis
- Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
- Circadian rhythm disorders
Again, the way each of these conditions impacts your sleep can vary. Even the way the same disorder affects two different individuals can vary. To get the best treatment for your unique needs, it’s important to discuss this condition and its effect on sleep with your doctor.
Sleep Deprivation Treatment and Prevention
Of course, you aren’t completely defenseless against sleep deprivation. There are many steps you can take to treat it on days when you’re feeling groggy, to fight it when you can’t seem to fall asleep, or to prevent it from happening in the first place. These are some of the best ways you can fight sleep deprivation:
Meditation, mindfulness, and other relaxation techniques can not only help you fall asleep, they can improve the quality of your overall sleep. One study suggests that meditation may even reduce the length of time you need to sleep. Meditation can help promote relaxation while also reducing stress, both of which can make sleep come more easily.
There are many ways you can incorporate meditation into your daily routine to promote sleep. You may choose to meditate right before you sleep, while you’re in bed trying to go to sleep, as soon as you wake up, or during the day when you have some free time. Do what works best for your needs and schedule.
Skip the Caffeine
While you may need coffee to wake up in the morning, if you drink too much caffeine, or consume it too late in the day, it can hinder your efforts to fall asleep that night. This results in either a reduced amount or quality of sleep and may have you drinking copious amounts of caffeine the next day to compensate, creating a vicious circle.
Pay close attention to your caffeine intake throughout the day, and consider switching to decaf in the afternoon. You may also want to consider cutting back to one cup of coffee per day to see if that makes it easier to fall asleep, or swapping the coffee entirely for tea. Any major or abrupt changes in caffeine intake can lead to withdrawal symptoms, such as headaches, nervousness, and fatigue, so be sure to make gradual changes to your caffeine intake.
Technology has become increasingly widespread in modern life, but you may want to leave your phone, computer, and other electronics out of your bedroom. Different colors of lights produce different effects, and the blue light given off by smartphones and computers is known to make you more attentive and boost your mood. While that can be beneficial during daytime hours, it can be disruptive to your sleep.
Avoiding the detrimental effects of blue light on your sleep is relatively simple. Just do your best to limit your exposure to blue lights starting two to three hours before you go to sleep. You can use a red light filter if you choose to watch TV or use your smartphone, as it has the smallest effect on melatonin suppression. Further, looking at or spending time in brighter lights during the day and avoiding them at night may also improve your ability to fall asleep at night.
Improve Your Sleeping Environment
Your sleeping environment plays an important role in your ability to sleep well, and your bedroom may not be conducive to quality sleep. Generally speaking, a noisy or bright room will make it more difficult to fall asleep, while a quiet, dark room will make it easier.
There may be factors you can’t control, such as noisy neighbors or the drone of nearby traffic, but there are several ways you can improve your sleeping environment. Blackout curtains can make even the lightest of rooms dark, for instance, and listening to white noise can disguise other distracting noises. You should also ensure your bedroom is cool, not cold or hot, when you go to bed to create an optimal sleeping environment.
Get a Better Mattress
Naturally, what you actually sleep on can directly influence your sleep. A worn-out or uncomfortable mattress can make sleep less restful, whereas a new, high quality mattress can improve the amount and quality of sleep you get. You may benefit more from either a softer or firmer mattress, but the right type of mattress truly depends on your personal preference and needs.
See a Doctor
If you still find yourself struggling with sleep deprivation, despite trying a variety of treatment and prevention strategies, you should see your doctor. You may be suffering from a sleep disorder or have some kind of medical condition that’s preventing you from sleeping. If that’s the case, your doctor may be able to offer additional solutions, including medication, to help you overcome sleep deprivation.
The Importance of Sleep
It’s all but impossible to overstate the importance of sleep to your overall health and well-being. Not only does sleep make you feel rested and refreshed, it comes with a number of health benefits. It reduces your risk of developing long-term health issues, such as heart disease, certain cancers, and diabetes. Sleep can also improve your cognitive functions and boost your mood. According to one study, it may even promote longevity and reduce your risk of premature death.
Aside from the immediate effects related to a lack of sleep, there are dozens of far-reaching consequences of sleep deprivation. Your inability to concentrate and focus could lead to an accident while driving, or hinder your ability to perform your job. Your irritability and mood swings may affect your relationships with those around you. Sleep deprivation can fluctuations with your weight, due to changes in your appetite, judgement, and impulse control. Chronic sleep loss can cause your skin to age more quickly and lead to dull skin, fine lines, and dark circles under your eyes.
It’s important to take your sleep as seriously as you would other aspects of your health. You, and others around you, may have a tendency to popularize sleep deprivation in the name of dedication, commitment, or hard work. By restricting your sleep, however, all you’re doing is depriving your body of what it needs to survive.
Sleep debt is the aggregate effect of not getting enough sleep. The more sleep you miss, the larger your sleep debt is. For example, if you need nine hours of sleep to feel rested and refreshed, but only get six hours of sleep, your sleep debt would be three hours.
You can repay your sleep debt, but you shouldn’t treat it like a bank account that you can make withdrawals and deposits from by staying up late and napping. In the event that you do have to restrict the amount you sleep, though, you will not immediately put yourself at risk of sleep deprivation.
It’s easiest to pay back your short-term sleep debt. Using the above example, you can pay back your three hours of sleep debt by adding an extra hour of rest to the three following nights. You can also repay long-term sleep debt, but it may take more planning and time, depending on how high your debt is. Try to take some time off from your obligations and allow yourself to sleep for as long as you need to each night. You may sleep much longer than usual at first, but, as you begin to repay your debt, your body will adjust to the amount of sleep it needs. Once it’s repaid, do your best not to fall back into sleep debt.
How Long Can You Live Without Sleep?
High school student Randy Gardner went 11 days, or 264 hours, without sleep in 1964 for a science experiment in 1965. He claimed that he wanted to break the record and show that people can stay awake without it being a negative experience. He’s still alive and, as far as scientists can tell, his long-term health has not been impacted by this experiment. Though his record has been broken since, Gardner’s case was well-documented and remains significant to this day. It’s worth noting that he did still experience the intense side effects of sleep deprivation, including microsleeps, memory impairments, and hallucinations.
There’s also not any direct evidence that humans can die from a lack of sleep in the way they could die from lack of food or water. However, in certain experiments, both rats and dogs have died from sleep deprivation, which indicates that it could be possible for humans to die directly from sleep deprivation as well. There are several rare disorders, such as Fatal Familial Insomnia, that can lead to extreme sleep deprivation and death — though the cause of death is usually organ failure, rather than loss of sleep.
All things considered, it’s probably best to avoid seeing how long you can live without sleep. Though there may be days when you have to push back your bedtime or wake up early, getting the right amount of high-quality sleep is incredibly beneficial for your physical and mental health. Don’t deprive yourself; take sleep seriously and give yourself the rest you need and deserve.