Sleep Deprivation Symptoms & Effects on Your Health
Sleep deprivation is something we all suffer at some stage. You’ll no doubt be familiar with that groggy feeling, accompanied by zero desire or motivation to get out of bed after not getting enough sleep.
A lack of sleep may seem nothing more than a minor inconvenience that might make you struggle a bit to get through the day while longing for your bed, but it can have potentially serious consequences.
Even in the short term, being sleep deprived can add unwanted risk to situations where concentration, decision making, and reaction times are essential.
In the long term, chronic sleep deprivation can have serious detrimental health effects.
This guide will cover both the physical and mental effects of sleep deprivation, the signs and symptoms of sleep deprivation, and how to treat and prevent sleep deprivation.
Causes of Sleep Deprivation
Sleep deprivation is the result of a lack of or reduced quality of sleep, and there are a vast number of potential causes of this condition.
Some common ones include:
- Intake of stimulants such as caffeine
- Anxiety and depression
- Irregular shift work
- Jet lag
- Medical conditions — both physical and mental illness
- Inadequate sleeping environment (temperature, noise, light, etc.)
- Sleep disorders and parasomnias
What Symptoms or Signs Will I Notice That Indicate Sleep Deprivation?
There are several tell-tale signs that you may be suffering from sleep deprivation.
Of course, there will be obvious signs like excessive sleepiness, daytime tiredness, and irritability.
There are other signs, both physically and behaviorally, that can be caused by changes to bodily functions like hormone production and immune system response due to not getting enough sleep.
These can include:
- Poor skin condition, with acne or other forms of breakouts or problems due to changes in hormone production and immune inefficiency.
- Sometimes the eyes really do have it — tell-tale signs like puffiness, bags, redness, and dark circles are often a dead giveaway.
- Wrinkles and loss of skin elasticity. Your skin may be more susceptible to becoming looser and developing wrinkles. Again, hormone disruption plays a part here, as well as a lack of sleep, meaning less cell and tissue repair can happen overnight.
- Unusual junk food cravings. An imbalance in appetite-controlling hormones, as well as a lack of good judgment and impulse control, can have you reaching for those unhealthy snacks after a sleep-deprived night.
- Relying on stimulants. If you feel you need caffeine and depend on it like a crutch to get through the day, you are very likely experiencing the adverse effects of not enough sleep.
How Much Sleep Should You Be Getting?
|Age Range||Recommended Sleep Duration|
|Newborn (0-3 months)||14-17 hours|
|Infants (4-12 months)||12-16 hours|
|Toddlers (1-2 years)||11-14 hours|
|Preschoolers (3-5 years)||10-13 hours|
|School Age (6-12 years)||9-12 hours|
|Teenagers (13-18 years)||8-10 hours|
|Adults (18-65 years)||7-9 hours|
|Adults (65+)||7-8 hours|
For the average adult under 65, the recommended number of quality sleep hours is between 7-9 hours per night.
If you’re regularly getting under 7 hours of good uninterrupted sleep each night, you may be suffering from chronic sleep deprivation.
For more on the sleep needs of different age groups, see our recommended sleep duration guide here.
How Sleep Deprivation Affects The…
1. Immune System
- Sleep is of vital importance for your body’s immune system to fight infection and sickness.
- The immune system produces proteins called cytokines during sleep that regulate the immune system response.
- The body needs the level of specific cytokines to increase when the body is under stress or fighting infection.
- Sleep deprivation means lowered production of cytokines and antibodies, reducing the efficiency of the body’s immune response and weakening your defense against illness.
- A weakened immune response may also mean longer recovery time from illness.
- A lack of sleep may inhibit your body’s ability to form immunological memory, where the immune system recognizes previously encountered threats and responds accordingly.
- Weakening of the immune system due to sleep deprivation can put you at risk of developing chronic diseases and health conditions.
2. Respiratory System
- Weakened immunity due to not getting enough sleep can put you at risk of developing chronic lung conditions, such as pneumonia.
- You are also more likely to be susceptible to recurring cold and flu infections.
- Weakened immunity can also make recovery from respiratory conditions take longer and make existing conditions worse.
3. Digestive System
- Two hormones produced in the gastrointestinal tract, ghrelin, and leptin, stimulate and inhibit hunger, respectively.
- When suffering from a shortage of sleep, ghrelin production increases and leptin production is suppressed. This can result in over-eating and excessive calorie intake.
- Weight gain through lack of sleep can be exacerbated by a lack of motivation and energy to exercise.
- Sleep deprivation can increase insulin resistance and lower the body’s tolerance for glucose. This can increase the risk of diabetes.
4. Cardiovascular System
- Sleep deprivation increases the risk of heart disease and stroke.
- During sleep is when blood vessels heal and rejuvenate. Missing out on enough sleep can lead to higher blood pressure and increased heart rate.
- Pro-inflammatory proteins called cytokines that cause chronic inflammation within the body due to lack of sleep may put increased strain on the heart.
5. Endocrine System
- The endocrine system is the system within the body that produces and secretes hormones.
- For men, interrupted sleep can result in lowered testosterone levels.
- Growth hormone is secreted as we sleep, which is essential for developing children and repairing cells and tissue. Sleep deprivation disturbs this process.
- Lack of sleep can trigger the release of TSH (thyroid-stimulating hormone), high levels of which can result in an under-active thyroid and a slower metabolism.
- The stress a lack of sleep places your body under results in increased levels of cortisol, the “stress hormone.” The stimulating effect of cortisol can result in a cycle of sleeplessness.
What Are The Short-term and Long-term Effects of Sleep Deprivation?
There are both short term and long term effects of sleep deprivation. If you were to suffer from a lack of quality sleep now and then as a one-off or very short-term problem, a lot of these consequences would be familiar to you.
Thankfully, the short-term effects usually are more of an inconvenience than a serious worry, but some of the mental and cognitive effects can increase the risk of accidents.
So, even in the short term, sleep loss can be potentially serious for anyone working in a dangerous industry where awareness and concentration are vital, or in situations like driving.
Chronic sleep deprivation is more severe as it can lead to potentially serious long term health effects, raising the chance of developing diseases and debilitating health conditions, and can even be an indirect cause of early death.
Short Term Sleep Deprivation Effects
1. Mood Changes
Ask anybody around you after a night or more of not getting the required amount of sleep, and they most likely will have noticed a change in your mood — sleep deprivation can often be responsible for giving us a “short fuse,” resulting in
- A generally negative mood.
- Irritability — we’ll often be quick to “snap.”
- Appearing generally more subdued than usual.
- Susceptibility to being overly emotional.
2. Decreased Energy
Lethargy and feeling like you’re moving at the speed of a sloth are hallmarks of sleep deprivation.
Oftentimes the struggle to physically get out of bed after a night of disturbed sleep will continue throughout the day.
A lack of physical energy can have a noticeable effect on your general mood. It can have knock-on effects like reduced exercise and physical activity, cravings for calorie-dense foods, and reliance on caffeine or other stimulants, leading to further sleep deprivation.
REM sleep, especially, is essential for memory, as this is the sleep stage where experiences are processed and consolidated into memories for recall later.
Sleep deprivation can have a significant dulling effect on your memory and recall ability. Not getting enough sleep can disrupt the creation of new connections in the brain.
In the short term, the effect on recall and memory is likely more to do with fatigue and impaired cognition, but chronic sleep deprivation can cause more severe memory problems in the long term.
4. Lack of Concentration
If you’ve ever had to sit an exam or complete a task that requires close concentration while suffering from a lack of sleep, you’ll know it can sometimes feel virtually impossible to direct your attention and have it stick to the task at hand.
Sleep deprivation diminishes your level of general alertness, which makes it hard to focus and concentrate.
Impaired concentration can affect memory, too; inability to concentrate on what’s at hand can mean it does not make it into your short-term and eventually long-term memory.
5. Poor Decision Making
Impairment of general cognitive function from sleep deprivation can make decisions much harder than usual.
Diminished ability to focus and concentrate and heightened susceptibility to confusion means undertaking a task or making a decision that requires any complex thought or logical reasoning can be difficult, if not next to impossible.
As a consequence, it can be easy to make the wrong decision. Try to put off any major decisions that will have a consequential impact until you are well rested!
6. Increased Reaction Time
This is one short term effect of sleep deprivation that can be problematic and potentially dangerous.
In any situation where quick response time can be the difference between a run of the mill workday and a costly mistake, or even between life and death, a lack of sleep can be the reason for potential catastrophe.
7. Increased Risk of Accidents
Adding the already-mentioned effects of sleep deprivation together can result in an overall increase in your risk of being involved in an accident, whether while driving, operating in a dangerous work environment, or even at home.
Drowsiness while driving is a significant cause of auto accidents, through inattention or nodding off at the wheel.
Diminished ability to concentrate, poor decision making, delayed reactions, and even being in an emotional state are factors that can increase the chance of accidents.
Being tired and overemotional, having a lack of willpower and motivation, and suffering an imbalance in the hormones that regulate appetite are all effects of lack of sleep that can have you reaching for the high-carb junk food.
In the short term, an unintentional cheat day from your diet is not the end of the world. Still, chronic sleep deprivation can have detrimental long-term health effects due to overeating leading to obesity and the associated health problems.
Long Term Sleep Deprivation Effects
1. Anxiety and Depression
What might start out as just a change in mood in the short term can potentially turn into conditions like anxiety and depression in the long-term.
Sleep and depression are closely tied. When chronic sleep deprivation results in impaired everyday functioning, it’s easy to see how depression can be a natural outcome in the long term.
2. Raised Blood Pressure
Your body’s inability to properly regulate stress hormones like cortisol (sleep deprivation can cause nighttime cortisol levels to rise) and heal and repair blood vessels can result in raised blood pressure.
Obstructive sleep apnea is a common cause of both sleep deprivation and raised blood pressure.
3. Increased Risk of Heart Attack
Both raised blood pressure and inflammation levels due to sleep deprivation can lead to an increased risk of developing heart disease and suffering heart attacks.
Not surprisingly, the urge to overeat and binge on lousy food that is often a symptom of sleep deprivation can dramatically increase the risk of becoming obese. There is a strong link between sleep deprivation and obesity.
5. Type 2 Diabetes
Sleep deprivation can result in your body releasing less of the blood sugar-regulating hormone insulin while at the same time releasing raised levels of stress hormones like cortisol.
Cortisol, as well as helping to keep you awake, can prevent insulin from doing its job correctly.
The result? Excess glucose in the bloodstream which can raise the likelihood of developing Type 2 diabetes.
6. Suppressed Immune Response
Lack of sleep can compromise your immune system, making you more susceptible to infections and viruses like cold and flu.
Sleep deprivation can mean lowered production of cytokines, proteins that regulate the immune response, and other antibodies that fight infections.
7. Lowered Testosterone and Sex Drive
If you’re hearing “not tonight babe, I’m too tired” a little too regularly, it may be your partner is suffering from sleep deprivation.
Sleep deprivation can significantly lower libido, and in men, it can be responsible for lowering testosterone levels, one result of which is often a reduced sex drive.
8. Memory Loss
Side effects of sleep deprivation such as high blood pressure and narrowed blood vessels resulting in decreased blood flow to the brain may affect memory and other brain functions.
Aside from this, studies have shown sleep-deprived mice develop deposits of a protein called beta-amyloid in the brain. In humans, these deposits are linked to impaired memory and cognition and dementia.
Prolonged sleep deprivation can cause psychosis symptoms.) in otherwise healthy people, and studies have shown that it can be both a precursor and precipitant of psychosis.
10. Brain Damage
A Penn Medicine study shows that chronic sleep deprivation may have a consequence that’s more serious than previously thought - permanent brain damage.
Studying the effects of chronic sleep loss in mice determined that it can result in the injury and loss of neurons in the locus coeruleus.
Research has shown that in humans, attention span and other cognitive abilities that are affected negatively by sleep deprivation may not return to normal even after recovery sleep.
In mice that were set a sleep schedule mimicking a shift worker’s, after several days, they showed reduced levels of a protein response that protects neurons from injury, increased cell death, and a 25% reduction in these locus coeruleus neurons.
11. Can Be An Indirect Cause of Death
A meta-analysis of several studies shows that short sleep duration is associated with a greater risk of death and can be a significant predictor of early mortality.
How Do You Treat Sleep Deprivation?
The simplest form of treatment for sleep deprivation is merely getting the recommended amount of sleep consistently — between seven and nine hours for adults.
Of course, this advice may seem easier said than done. After all, sometimes it’s more than just staying up too late watching Netflix that’s to blame for lack of sleep. Underlying health conditions or sleep disorders can also be to blame.
Your doctor may need to order a diagnostic sleep study to assess your sleep quality and determine any potential cause and course of treatment for your sleep loss, which may include medication or other forms of therapy.
How To Prevent Sleep Deprivation?
The best way to prevent sleep deprivation is by practicing good sleep hygiene and sticking to a regular sleep schedule.
- Maintain a comfortable, quiet sleep environment that is the correct temperature and free from distractions and light.
- Establish a habitual pre-sleep routine.
- Avoid caffeine, alcohol, and other stimulants, ideally from the middle of the day onwards.
- Don’t deviate from your usual schedule too much on weekends and holidays.
- Maintain good health and exercise regularly.
- Practice relaxation techniques like breathing exercises, yoga, and meditation.
- Avoid electronic devices before bed.
- Avoid daytime naps.