Sleep Deprivation: Symptoms, Causes, Treatments

Sleep Deprivation describes the cumulative effect of a person not having sufficient sleep. Insufficient sleep adversely effects the body, brain, mood and cognitive function. All aspects of health can be impacted by sleep deprivation.

Definition: What Is Sleep Deprivation

Sleep deprivation is defined as not obtaining adequate total sleep. When someone is in a chronic sleep-restricted state they’ll notice excessive daytime sleepiness, fatigue, clumsiness, and weight gain or weight loss. In addition, being sleep-deprived affects both the brain and cognitive function.1

Interestingly, there’s a subset of cases whereby sleep deprivation can actually lead to an enhanced mood, alertness, and increased energy. Note that relatively few studies have compared the different effects between chronic partial-sleep restriction and acute total-sleep deprivation, and the total absence of sleep over long periods of time has not been studied in humans. That being said, long-term total sleep deprivation resulted in death in lab animals.

What are the effects of sleep deprivation?

Effects of Sleep Deprivation

  • Excessive daytime sleepiness
  • Accidents from lack of attention
  • Moodiness
  • Hunger
  • Other health dangers listed below


The Dangers and Effects of Sleep Deprivation


It’s now believed that people who experience short-term sleep restriction are not able to process glucose as efficiently as those who get eight hours of sleep; which means that they have an increased likelihood of developing Type 2 Diabetes. A study of more than 1400 participants conducted in 2005 showed that people who habitually slept for only a few hours were more prone to experience symptoms of Type 2 Diabetes.

Healing and Sleep

In the year 2005, a study was conducted on a group of rats: for five days the rats were deprived of REM sleep and, compared to a group of rats which were not deprived of ‘dream’ sleep, the results showed no significant changes in their wound-healing ability. These rats were allowed NREM (deep) sleep.

The Brain

We now know that sleep deprivation adversely affects the brain and cognitive function. A study completed by the VAHS in San Diego and the UCSD School of Medicine in the year 2000 monitored activity in the brains of sleep-deprived people whilst they performed basic verbal learning tasks by using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

Sleep and brain

The results of the study showed that, in sleepier subjects, more activity was found in certain areas of the prefrontal cortex of the brain: The prefrontal cortex is an area of the brain that supports such mental faculties as logical and practical (‘means-ends’) reasoning and working memory. These results were interpreted by the researchers as indicating that, in order to complete a specific task, the average non-sleep-deprived subject’s brain needed to exert a lot more effort than the brain of an average non-sleep deprived person. They were able to infer from these results that the brains of sleep-deprived people were trying to compensate for the adverse effects created by sleep deprivation.


A survey conducted in 1999 revealed that sleep deprivation caused reduced cortisol secretion the following day – the result of increased slow-wave sleep. It was also revealed that, whilst suppressing growth hormones, sleep deprivation enhanced activity on the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis: this is the regulator of body functions such as the immune system, digestion, sex, mood, or energy usage; in addition to controlling reactions to stress. This study supports the findings of previous studies where adrenal insufficiency was observed in idiopathic hypersomnia.

Working Memory and Attention

Besides the many physical consequences of insufficient sleep, perhaps the most important consequences of sleep deprivation are deficits in working memory and attention. Lapses in ordinary mundane routines can cause worrying results; from missing words or sentences while taking notes to omitting important ingredients while cooking. It appears that carrying out tasks that require attention is in direct correlation to the number of hours the person sleeps each night; with these functions declining with the number hours of sleep deprivation. Methods such as choice-reaction time tasks are used to test working memory. Sadly, these attentional lapses can move into critical domains whereby the consequences could well result in life or death: industrial accidents and car crashes can be the result of inattentiveness, directly attributable to sleep deprivation.

Researchers typically use the (PVT) psychomotor vigilance task in order to measure the magnitude of attention deficits: this simply requires the patient to press a button at pseudo-random intervals in response to a light. An error is recorded when the patient fails to press the button in response to the light (stimulus), and this is noted as being attributable to the micro-sleeps occurring due to sleep deprivation.

Symptoms of Sleep DeprivationSymptoms of Sleep Deprivation

When a patient has continuous muscular activity, but insufficient rest, we see other issues becoming more prevalent in sleep-deprived patients; such as cramping. Muscle fascia tears, hernias, and other problems usually associated with physical overexertion have been reported in extreme cases of sleep deprivation. At the extreme end of the scale, sleep deprivation can mimic psychosis, where distorted perceptions can lead to inappropriate behavioral and emotional responses.2


Interestingly, there have been studies that show sleep restriction might have potential when it comes to treating depression. We know that people suffering from depression experience earlier incidences of REM sleep plus increased rapid eye movements; and monitoring a patient’s EEG and waking them during bouts of REM sleep appears to produce a therapeutic effect, thus alleviating symptoms of depression. When sleep deprived, up to 60% of patients show signs of immediate recovery; however, most relapse the next night. It’s believed that this effect is linked to increases in the brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). It’s also been shown that, in normal people, chronotype is related to the effect that sleep deprivation has on mood: following sleep deprivation, people who prefer mornings become more depressed, while those who prefer evenings show a marked improvement in their mood.

In 2014, a thorough evaluation of the human metabolome in sleep deprivation discovered that 27 metabolites are increased following 24 waking hours, with suggestions that tryptophan, serotonin, and taurine may be contributing to the antidepressive effect.

Weight Gain or Weight Loss

When rats were exposed to prolonged sleep deprivation the result was that both food intake and energy expenditure increased, resulting in a net weight loss, and ultimately leading to death. The hypothesis of this study is that when moderate chronic sleep debt goes hand-in-hand with habitual short sleep, energy expenditure and increased appetite are encouraged; and, in societies where high-calorie food is freely available the equation is tipped towards food intake rather than expenditure. Nationally representative samples used in several large studies suggest that one of the causes of the United States obesity problem could possibly be due to the corresponding decrease in the average number of hours that people sleep.

obesity and sleep

These findings indicate that the hormones that regulate appetite and glucose metabolism could be disrupted because of sleep deprivation. It appears that the association between obesity and sleep deprivation is strongest in young and middle-age adults. On the other hand, there are scientists who believe that related problems, such as sleep apnea, together with the physical discomfort of obesity, reduce a person’s likelihood of getting a good night’s sleep.

Common causes of sleep deprivation:

Causes of sleep deprivationSleep disorders that reduce sleep time like insomnia, sleep apnea, RLS, and others.

  • Inadequate sleep hygiene.
  • Sleep disorders that interfere with the brain’s ability to stay awake, including narcolepsy and primary hypersomnia.
  • Insufficient total sleep time.
  • Distractions during sleep from a bed partner. There is data to suggest that bed partner snoring can cause disruption to sleep. (A snoring mouthpiece could stop the snore sounds.)

Treatment Options for Sleep Deprivation

The primary treatment of sleep deprivation is to increase total sleep time. Treating the cause of sleep deprivation is generally the solution to the problem. If a sleep disorder is interrupting sleep, the problem will need to be addressed in order to improve sleep duration and quality. Inadequate sleep hygiene or insufficient sleep is often a cause that needs to be addressed.3

How long can a person stay awake?

In 1965, Randy Gardner stayed awake for 11 days as part of an experiment.

If you are struggling with sleep deprivation symptoms, talk to your physician or sleep doctor about treatment options.

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26 thoughts on “Sleep Deprivation: Symptoms, Causes, Treatments

  1. Bill Reply

    Is it true that we register electromagnetic radiation (WiFi etc) same as it were light waves? I read this somewhere. And it might explain why despite being exhausted…I’m not able to sleep. Because dat night rhythm is disrupted due to the magnitude of 360 degree radiation frequencies:/

  2. X Reply

    These results were interpreted by the researchers as indicating that, in order to complete a specific task, the average non-sleep-deprived subject’s brain needed to exert a lot more effort than the brain of an average non-sleep deprived person.DOESN’T MAKE SENSE, PLEASE CHECK.

  3. Anonymous Reply

    These results were interpreted by the researchers as indicating that, in order to complete a specific task, the average non-sleep-deprived subject’s brain needed to exert a lot more effort than the brain of an average non-sleep deprived person.
    This needs to be corrected!

  4. Leroy Barrett Reply

    I am 87 years old and recently spent five days, four nights in the hospital. Like a previous commenter I take melatonin and trazodone when I am at home. I asked the hospital for melatonin but never received a reply. During the night I was awakened for blood pressure checks, blood drawing and doctor visits all at separate times. All of this severely disrupted my sleep. On the fifth day I told the doctor I was leaving to go home and get some sleep. I felt I was on the verge of a breakdown. I do not understand why these functions have to be done at night.

  5. Chris Strange Reply

    For MLA citation purposes can you tell me who wrote this and when it was published?

  6. Jada walker Reply

    Is is possible that you could contact me asap because i am doing a research paper and I need to k now who wrote this and when it was published.

  7. Thankful Reply

    Thank you for sharing this information , I have been struggling with my sleep for a long time. I find the information informative and helpful. I hope to get my sleep under control.
    I feel the information you shared can help those of who struggle. Sleep is very important to our health. I have learned a lot about sleep deprivation and insomnia.

  8. MVS Reply

    I am retirement age now, but I remember in the 1960’s through the 1980’s members of my family and my husband’s family worked jobs in the iron and steel mills and relevant companies over most of their lives and sleep deprivation was a part of daily life. These mills operated 24/7 on day, evening and night shifts and part of working in those industries was being switched around on different shifts on a regular basis for many years before obtaining enough seniority to get on the treasured day shift. I likewise tolled away 60-65 hours a week on overtime in the legal field many, many weeks and suffered loss of sleep, a few times working 48 hours straight with only a nap to meet last-minute deadlines. Many family members who are gone now suffered memory loss, dementia and the symptoms just as described in this article. No one warned of the effects of sleep deprivation on a person’s life in those days, and I realize now why both families suffered all of the effects described in this article. They needed the income and had little job choices otherwise then, but sleep deprivation should never be a part of requirements for a job. Get your sleep and rest. In the end, such sacrifices as loss of sleep for a job are not remembered nor appreciated but you will suffer through the end of your life with the after effects when you realize it or not. Put your health first always. That’s easier said than done, but remind yourself often.

  9. Quintin Smith Reply

    this website really helped my research for school and i want to thank this site for all the help

  10. Santhosh Reply

    I have a day time sleepiness in last one year, i am not control day time sleep, but i never get sleep up to 2 am in night. can you help for this problem ..

    • harjp5 Reply

      Do you do any physical excercising during the day? On weekends (the only time I can), I go hiking for 2 – 4 hours, LOVE getting good uphill climbs. It helps me to be able to sleep up to seven hours. Weekdays I have to work, so I have to reserve my energy for “functioning/stayng awake.”

  11. Scott Gaudioso Reply

    I’ve had some serious migraine headaches and I think it’s from a lack of sleep. I suffer memory loss, fatigue, weight loss, and mood changes. Been to the emergency room three times in a week and they won’t admit me. Other side effects occur also. Can’t afford to see a sleep specialist or a neurologist. Don’t know what to do anymore.

  12. Notreal Reply

    “in order to complete a specific task, the average non-sleep-deprived subject’s brain needed to exert a lot more effort than the brain of an average non-sleep deprived person.” -whaat? Who’s who? You said the same subject twice. Please fix this error

  13. Shea Johnson Reply

    Well I can sleep well I’m the morning but when night hits I’m up like now it’s 10:15a.m I’ve been up for 15hrs and counting I am 33 and I have been this way for years my doctor gave me pill after pill and none worked I just want to understand why I hate sleep

    • crystal Reply

      You may have insomina. I have it and you’ll need to get on a regimented schedule. Talk to your doctor about seeing a sleep specialist.

  14. Cynthia Woodin Reply

    I sprained my ankle Memorial Day didn’t seek treatment. It was sore and hard to walk on. Went on a trip and when came back had a blood clot to the lung. Hospitalized four days Coumadin shots, BP med, elliquis and high BP lisinipril. I have asthma and it caused a lot of breathing problems. I have not been able to sleep getting only three four hours and awake. I have a lot of anxiety and take buspirone 5 mg two times a day, using anebulizerto clear up asthma. The Dr prescribed traadone one 50 mg for sleep, but that is all the sleep I get. I added melatonin with the trazadone. I have lost weight and I am a mess. When anxiety comes on it effects my breathing.what do you suggest ? I have used some oils like lavender, etc.

  15. Jommore Reply

    I have seizures I’ve lost 20 pds 1month cant sleep as much as i try smdh

  16. jerry eads Reply

    I have had sleep issues since 3 rear enders in 2008,diagnosed with PCS, cognitive loss, memory issues, left eye neglect etc…failed certification in three different studies within a year or so…I have loss of weight (@30 lbs or so)my psychiatrist tried 3 meds, none worked…take naps daily etc

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