Sleep Deprivation: Causes, Stages, Symptoms and Treatment

Sleep deprivation causes sleepiness during the day and other complications

The loss of sleep is a common occurrence with the hassles and bustles of the current lives. It is being experienced by most of the people. Sleep deprivation is defined as instances where one is not getting enough sleep as required by the body. Sleep deprivation causes people to have a feeling of not having rested or feel alert. It is not a sleeping disorder however, but it is not a case of acute sleepiness. As will be explored in the article, sleep deprivation in all stages reduces the quality of life, the financial well-being and ultimately has a negative effect on our health according to several experts.

The amount of sleep required in order not to have sleep deprivation varies from individual to individual and with age according to Pradeep Bollu, M.D., a neurologist who is also a board-certified sleep specialist with MU Health Care. Every adult according to Dr Pradeep requires his own biological system defined amount of sleep but in most instances, it is 6 hours in a day or more. Most adults will feel that they are not sleep deprived if they get 8 hours of sleep every day.

The effects of sleep deprivation therefore are more felt in young adults and children as compared to adults because the amount of sleep required reduces with age.

According to The Journal of Neuroscience, sleep deprivation causes problems that can lead to poor learning and memorizing. This in effect means that with sleep deprivation the brain activity is diminished which can result in poor memory and thus poor performance in school for kids. Good night sleep is important in day to day lives of every individual and thus efforts should be put in place to ensure persons with sleep deprivation get enough sleep every night.

Around 20 percent of Americans are sleep deprived. These people are prone to costly diseases because the body does not get enough time to rest and regenerate, accidents and performance issues. This affects not only the US economy but the global economy as well.

What are the well known facts about sleep deprivation?

There are some facts that are known which will be explored in this article including:

  • Lack of enough sleep on a regular basis reduces the attention and focus and therefore can make a person prone to accidents. This makes people to be less focused therefore leading to major accidents. Several deaths in accidents especially with motors is as a result of chronic sleep deprivation
  • Sleep deprivation affects all, but children and young adults are the most vulnerable to the negative side effects.
  • In most instances, sleep deprivation is a symptom of an underlying medical problem or sleep disorder that is yet to be treated or controlled
  • Sleep debt occurs when a person does not get enough sleep on a regular basis. This in normal individuals can lead to excessive sleeping when an opportunity arises.

What are the sleep deprivation causes?

The sleep deprivation causes differ from individual to individual. The causes might be cause of psychological, physiological, mental, disease or even lifestyle. The lives we live currently can lead one to have sleep deprivation because of the pressures. The following are some of the major causes of sleep deprivation:

  • Some individuals consider sleep as a wasted time. This is because they feel that there are some other more important activities they can do instead of sleeping. Some of these activities include; entertainment, work or education. Although these activities are important it is prudent to consider a sleep- wake balance that does not affect their lives. Young adults and teenagers have more sleep demands than adults but are also affected mostly by these activities.
  • Unintentional lack of enough sleep due to traveling, family obligations, demanding jobs and working in shifts especially night shift which are changed often. The demands of the world today may affect sleeping patterns in several ways thus leading to sleep deprivation.
  • Not having a regular sleep-wake pattern. Some people have tendencies of going to sleep late, have frequent nighttime arousals or waking up early. These things affect the individual because they lead to accumulation of sleep debt. In the long term this can lead to chronic sleep deprivation.
  • Sleep-related disorders like insomnia, sleep apnea and restless leg syndrome can cause sleep deprivation. This is because the disorders affect the amount of sleep one gets in a night leading to sleep deprivation in the long term.
  • Medical problems like depression, anxiety, hormone imbalances and chronic illnesses. Depression and anxiety can cause one not to get enough good night sleep regularly. If left untreated the episodes can lead to sleep deprivation. Chronic illnesses especially the ones with lots of pain can lead one to have several sleepless nights. Diseases like cancer, stroke, asthma can cause one to have sleep depression.

Maternal Sleep deprivation at different stages of pregnancy

Sleep deprivation during pregnancy, according to research is a serious public health concern. It affects both the health of the mother and the child. The results of the studies done show that maternal sleep deprivation at all stages affect the lives of the children. Both the cognitive and emotional functions of the child are affected. This may be attributed to the suppression of the hippocampal LTP and basal synaptic transmission.

Maternal sleep deprivation: Affects both the mother and the fetus

Lack of sleep during pregnancy can cause maternal complications like hypertension and gestational diabetes. The child is affected by poor nutrient and oxygen circulation associated with lack of sleep. If the child gets even a small drop in oxygen supply their lives are affected. During sleep the fetus gets the optimal blood flow. Thus, sleep deprivation affects the fetus and if the fall is regular, the fetus can experience decelerations of the heart rhythm and acidosis.

During pregnancy, other sleep disorders like snoring and obstructive sleep apnea often develop or worsen in the second and third trimester. Sleep apnea affects up to 10 percent of the pregnant women with some consequences on both the mother and the child.

Sleep deprivation stages

Sleep deprivation can be broadly classified into two kinds: acute and chronic. When you do not get enough sleep for a night or a few nights is classified as acute sleep deprivation. When you do not get the required amount of sleep consistently over a period of time (weeks or months) is classified as chronic sleep deprivation. In all sleep deprivation stages, most of the body systems are affected.

What does acute sleep deprivation cause?

After a long sleepless night or on repeated sleepless nights some consequences are experienced. When one does not get the required amount of sleep for a night or a few nights the following are observed:

  • Fatigue and increased sleepiness
  • The attention span reduces thus one cannot concentrate
  • One cannot focus well
  • The risk of accidents increases
  • Vigilance is reduced
  • Being moody and irritable
  • Difficulty in remembering and naming things
  • Lack of motivation
  • Yawning frequently
  • Clumsiness
  • Reduced sex drive
  • Increased apetite

After a few nights of lack of the required sleep the following may be observed:

  • Hallucinations
  • Paranoia
  • Memory lapses
  • Delusional thinking

The symptoms are as a result of lack of progress in the sleep stages to the deep sleep compounded with the lack of enough sleep. The deep sleep stage is the most rejuvenating stage of sleep and helps the individual to wake up feeling alert and focused. This explains why after spending a night without sleeping in preparation for an exam is counter-productive. Deep sleep solidifies memories that were picked during the day thus helping people remember.

With enough sleep the acute sleep deprivation symptoms are relieved. The symptoms however will progress to the chronic sleep deprivation if not treated or controlled.

What does chronic sleep deprivation cause over time?

With chronic sleep deprivation comes several physiological and psychological problems. Chronic sleep deprivation is experienced when one cannot get the required sleep over a longer period in weeks or months. These really affect the quality of life and can even lead to death. With time chronic sleep deprivation causes:

1.       Elevated risk of type 2 diabetes

Sleep deprivation increases the risk of type 2 diabetes

Chronic sleep deprivation affects the hormones production and utilization. Insulin production increases with lack of enough sleep which leads to increase in fat storage and increased the risk of type 2 diabetes. In addition to that increase in appetite due to the action of leptin and ghrelin and craving for carbohydrates causes increase in weight which is associated with type 2 diabetes. Leptin and ghrelin are the hormones in the body which control hunger and satiety feelings and are affected by sleep.

2.       The stress hormones increase

When several insomniacs were studied, and results published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, there was a huge correlation between the amount of sleep and stress. The results showed that people who did not get enough sleep produced more of Adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) and stress hormones during the day and night. ACTH controls the release of cortisol; “the body’s built in natural alarm”. The hormone cortisol works in the brain to control moods, motivation and fear. Because sleep deprivation affects the production of these hormones it thus leads to stress.

3.       Cardiovascular diseases risk increases including high blood pressure, stroke and heart attacks

Good night sleep on a regular basis helps the heart muscles and vessels of the cardiovascular system to heal and rebuild. The good night sleep also helps to maintain the blood pressure in the right levels. It is not very clear how lack of sleep affects the cardiovascular system. Hypotheses however major on chronic sleep deprivation effects on inflammation, healing and glucose metabolism. Also since lack of sleep also affects the stress and stress affects the cardiovascular system, then lack of sleep affects the cardiovascular system. Lack of enough sleep on the long term can therefore cause increase in blood pressure, stroke and heart attacks.

4.       Psychiatric problems and neurological diseases like dementia and seizures.

Good night sleep especially getting good deep sleep stage helps in memory restoration. Studies in animals have shown that with lack of enough sleep neurons are affected. In acute sleep deprivation, memory lapses are quite common. These effects are elevated when one has chronic sleep deprivation. The loss or impairment of neurons leads to neurological diseases.

Chronic sleep deprivation also increases the risk of psychiatric problems. Diseases associated with stress increase since there is increase in stress. These psychiatric conditions are also associated with effects of lack of sleep on the body and mind. Anxiety also increases with lack of enough sleep over a period of time.

5.       Raised levels of inflammation

Chronic sleep deprivation causes increases in the levels of inflammation. This is also seen in most of the sleep-related disorders like insomnia, sleep apnea and restless legs syndrome. The lack of sleep is associated with the enhancement of pro-inflammatory cytokines. Cytokines are small proteins that allow brain cells and other cells to communicate with each other and cause inflammation. The cytokines regulate body functions like cognition, moods, performance, and fatigue. These functions and in retrospect the cytokines are affected by a loss of sleep. To date, there has been no clear knowledge on how the inflammatory- cytokines are affected by sleep.

6.       Sensitivity to pain increases sometimes leading to chronic pain

When one experiences a pain causing injury with chronic sleep deprivation, the pain is enhanced and can lead to chronic pain. This mechanism is seen in animals where animals with acute sleep loss experienced more inflammation and pain unlike animals which had enough sleep. Thus this shows that enough sleep before and after surgery is very important in the recovery.

Not getting the required amount of sleep consistently like it is experienced in a third of Americans, can affect the normal body functions. It affects most of the body systems. It affects the endocrine system, the nervous system, the cardiovascular system, the digestive system and others. In a way it affects the temperature regulation, the neurons, increases stress and affects hormone production. Other effects of chronic sleep deprivation include:

  • Day-time sleepiness/ grogginess thus reducing performance at school or at work.
  • Loss of memory on a temporary basis or permanent basis if the condition is not treated
  • Excess day time sleepiness which can lead to accidents.
  • Loss of attention
  • Immune system effects leading to longer time of healing when one has an infection.
  • Increase risk of respiratory diseases
  • Reduced sexual appetite due to reduced testosterone production.


In most individuals, treatment is not necessary. This is because the individuals can get sleep but get sleep deprivation due to work or lifestyle related causes. However, for people who can not get enough sleep due to physical or psychological issues, treatment must be explored.

A sleep therapist or a physician can guide a person on how to cope or control the effects of sleep deprivation.

Treatment of sleep deprivation in all stages can be achieved through behavioral and cognitive methods or using medication.

Behavioral and cognitive methods of treatment

Lack of sleep can be treated in several effective ways that do not require medication. These methods include:

  • Relaxation: There are several ways of relaxing the muscles and thus helping to calm the body. These relaxation methods may include meditation, audio recordings that are available online, training your mind to relax, breathing exercises and relaxation imagery.
  • Stimulation control: The reasons for lack of sleep might vary from individual to individual. However, there are some things and activities that lead to stimulation. The activities that can reduce stimulation include going to bed when one wants to sleep, limiting the use of blue light emitting devices and having a sleeping pattern that is controlled among others. Others may include eating at least 2 hours before bedtime, regular exercise during the day and keeping the bedroom quiet, cool and dark.
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): This therapy is designed to understand and change the thoughts that might lead to some behaviors like lack of sleep. The therapy can help manage the lack of sleep by promoting happy, positive and rational thoughts. With these thoughts a person can get good and enough night sleep


Medications for sleep can either be natural or synthetic. These sleep medications can be bought over the counter (OTC) or may require a prescription. Some of the best sleeping pills include:

  • Benzodiazepines
  • Antidepressants
  • Doxepine (Silenor)
  • Eszopiclone (Lunesta)
  • Ramelteon (Rozerem)
  • Suvorexant (Belsomra)
  • Zaleplon (Sonata)
  • Zolpidem (Intermezzo, Edluar, Ambien)
  • Over-the-counter (OTC) sleep aids which are majorly antihistamines.

Some of the sleeping pills may lead to dependency. Therefore, it is very important to check the seide effects and adverse effects of the sleeping pills.

The natural sleeping aids include the following:

Some products like Lunar sleep aid combine several of these natural sleeping aids.

In addition to the treatment options available, it would be prudent to pay off any sleep debt you may have accumulated. This is done with proper planning and dedication to set down plans.

How to diagnose Sleep deprivation

Poor sleeping over a period of time should be considered carefully when trying to diagnose sleep deprivation. The best way to recognize the history of sleep deprivation in all stages is to keep a sleep log. In the sleep log, kindly note down he number of hours that are spent in bed, the number of times you wake up at night, the times spent awake in bed every night, how restful you feel in the morning and if you feel sleepy during the day.

On the sleep log a partner can help to check for snoring, gasping or limb-jerking. These may be symptoms of a sleep disorder and thus should be noted.

The written history can be presented to a sleep specialist or any other physician to analyze and deduce if there is sleep deprivation. The sleep specialist may also decide to employ polysomnography also known as sleep study.

The results of the sleep log or the polysomnogram are then use to deduce the presence of a sleep disorder and sleep deprivation if it is there.

Complications of sleep deprivation

As discussed above, sleep deprivation causes the following complications:

  • Stress, paranoia, anxiety and depression
  • Reduced tendency to think positively hence foul moods most of the time.
  • Weight gain which can cause obesity
  • Increased risk of hypertension, diabetes, heart attack and stroke
  • Poor memory and poor reasoning
  • Decreased willingness to solve problems
  • Hallucination and having beliefs in superstitions.
  • Poor interpersonal relations
  • poor impulse control
  • Feeling worthless, inadequate, powerless and low self esteem
  • Increase in incidents of accidents

All in all, lack of enough sleep leads to reduced quality of life. sleep deprivation in all stages affects the lives of individuals in all facets. It is therefore prudent to explore ways to get a good night sleep every night.

Sleep deprivation therefore:

In conclusion, sleep deprivation in all stages causes a lost of damage in the body and in relationships. The effects can be mitigated if one can learn how to get a good night sleep every day and by paying off any sleep debt. The cause of sleep deprivation may vary from individual to individual but in most cases if it is not because of a disease then it can be prevented.

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