Sleep Deprivation Causes, Symptoms And Treatment

image of a man sleeping on a bench because of sleep deprivation

What’s the longest time you’ve ever gone without sleep? 24 hours? Several days? Do you remember how it affected your mood, appetite or mental ability?

As a lifelong insomniac, on more than one occasion I’ve found myself feeling the unpleasant effects of sleep deprivation.

The worst being at the age of 22, when for no real reason I endured an epic 4 nights with what felt like no sleep at all.

I know many people will have experienced even longer periods with little or very disrupted sleep each night. I can’t imagine how that would feel, as my 4 nights were more than enough for my body and brain to feel very out of sorts.

I remember being incredibly frustrated by feeling so tired, yet paradoxically unable to sleep night after night. On the third night I started wondering what would become of me if this went on for a week, or longer even. Was my sleep deprivation dangerous?

If this is something you’ve also been through, or are worried about experiencing it, in this article I’ll be looking at the effects, symptoms and treatment of sleep deprivation.

Hopefully it will help you understand what happens when you don’t sleep, and deal with it as best as possible.

Why it’s important to understand sleep deprivation

The severity of sleep deprivation is often deeply underestimated. People tend to focus on the resulting sleepiness, but feeling tired might be the least worrying part of the condition; it can also lead to a range of physical and psychological impairments.

Modern social systems make it difficult for the average adult to get the total amount of recommended sleep. As a result, people are at a higher risk than ever of developing symptoms and disorders related to sleep deprivation.

And there are, of course, some circumstances which naturally bring about a lack of sleep: childcare, certain jobs and serious life events for example.

Accordingly, it’s never been more important to understand the issue. Hopefully you can then prevent it in the first place, or at least deal with it better if it does occur.

What is sleep deprivation?

A consistent definition of sleep deprivation isn’t found in any standard guide, but the term is generally used to describe a condition that arises when a person doesn’t get enough sleep.

Acute sleep deprivation is a term sometimes used to refer to short periods of sleep deprivation. Fortunately, acute sleep deprivation can usually be reversed after a night or two of good sleep.

What is chronic sleep deprivation?

It’s very common to go through acute periods of sleep deprivation, especially in the busy and stressful modern world. But what happens when you don’t sleep for months rather than just a few days or weeks?

The International Classification of Sleep Disorders diagnostic manual recognizes chronic sleep deprivation by the alternative name “Insufficient Sleep Syndrome”. Six criteria must be met for an individual diagnosis to be confirmed:

Chronic sleep deprivation diagnostic criteria

  1. Irrepressible sleepiness, unwanted lapses into sleep or, in children, behavioral abnormalities related to sleep deprivation.
  2. Total sleep time is less than the recommended sleep time for the age group. *
  3. Deprivation has persisted for at least three months.
  4. Sleeps longer without alarm or other usual source of waking.
  5. Feels better after sleeping more.
  6. Symptoms aren’t better explained by alternative diagnosis.

*Doesn’t apply for naturally “long sleepers” that require more hours.

What causes sleep deprivation?

The symptoms of sleep deprivation are obviously a result of not getting enough sleep. However, the deficit could be caused by a theoretically unlimited number of factors, such as:

  • Spending time that should be allotted to sleep doing other things (work, study, games, etc.)
  • Being constantly interrupted by conditions or situations like sleep apnea and parenthood.
  • Excessive worries, traumatic flashbacks or anything that could keep you up at night.
  • According to research in 2006, sleep disorders involving nightmares, hypnic jerks (involuntary twitch at sleep onset), sleep paralysis and especially insomnia are associated with an increased incidence of sleep deprivation.

Sleep deprivation symptoms

There are several signs of sleep deprivation that are observable in mental and biological processes. Recognizing and addressing these symptoms early may help prevent them from developing into a persistent condition.

Physical symptoms

  • Falling asleep unintentionally.
  • Bags/darkness under the eyes.
  • Impaired physical performance (coordination, athleticism, etc.)
  • Sleeping through alarms.

Psychological symptoms

  • Constant tiredness.
  • Increased hunger .
  • Poor mood.
  • Impaired cognitive performance (memory, decision making, etc.).

Effects of sleep deprivation

The consequences of sleep deprivation can range from mild to very serious, and may last for the short or long term.

Individual experiences of the condition will depend on factors such as the length of time it continues for and personal psychological/physiological histories.

Short term effects of sleep deprivation

  • Behavioral problems in children due to tiredness.
  • Increased anxiety.
  • Drowsiness.
  • Memory impairment.
  • Other cognitive impairment.
  • Hallucinations.
  • Hypnic Jerks.
  • Injury due to other circumstances, like an accident caused by tiredness or distractibility.

Long term effects of sleep deprivation

  • Developmental problems in children.
  • High blood pressure.
  • Increased risk of heart attack or stroke.
  • Weight gain.
  • Development of mood disorders or other psychiatric condition (including psychosis).
  • Reduced quality of life.
  • Death linked with other effects, such as accidents or heart problems.

To find out more about this, you might like to read the longer article looking specifically at the different effects of sleep deprivation.

Sleep deprivation treatment

The best treatment for both acute and chronic sleep deprivation is to get more sleep. It sounds simple in theory, but unfortunately this goal can be quite difficult to achieve.

People suffering from sleep deprivation are often subject to an underlying situation or condition that prevents the issue from being easily resolved.

For example, modern economics and employer expectations have placed a premium on hours worked, tempting the public into skipping sleep for more money or greater recognition.

It’s important for people to be realistic about the amount of sleep they need though. If it comes to it, you may need to cut back on other commitments to allow yourself time to sleep.

Psychological issues ranging from basic anxiety to complex disorders can have a negative impact on sleep and cause deprivation.

The ideal form of treatment in these cases would be aimed at controlling the condition rather than the symptoms. Though sometimes a combined approach that includes sleep aids (like sleeping pills or meditative practice) is often necessary.

This is also true for sleep deprivation arising from several physical conditions, especially those that cause continuous pain.

Regardless of individual circumstances, it’s important to practice good sleep hygiene to get the most out of time spent in bed. There are many methods that could qualify as good sleep-promoting behaviors, including:

  • Getting up at the same time every day.
  • Committing to sleep as being essential.
  • Getting out of bed if you can’t sleep.
  • Adopting relaxation techniques.
  • Only using the bedroom for sleep.
  • Avoiding caffeine and sugary drinks.
  • Exercising regularly.

Finally, whilst it’s tempting to use caffeine, other stimulants and even food to get through periods of sleep deprivation, it’s important to remember that this may help you through the day, but won’t stop the problem.

The only real solution is to allow yourself more time for sleep.

Your experience

What’s the longest period you ever stayed awake for? How did you feel during and after this time? Do you suffer from chronic sleep deprivation, and if so, what do you think causes it? Feel free to leave a comment below.

10 CommentsLeave a comment

  • I spent everyday doing homework, working past midnight. I think it’s because of assignements when it comes to reading. I am a slow reader and this takes a lot of my time. What can I do? How do I get eneough sleep?

    • Hi Ana
      Thanks for your comment. I would do two things – first, set yourself a limit for your study time to ensure you get enough sleep. If that means you can’t complete the assignments, then talk to your family, teacher or tutor to see if you can get some additional support with that. They may be able to find a way to help you improve your reading speed, if it is something that needs to improve.
      Regards
      Ethan

  • I haven’t slept well in 5 years. Nothing helps. I have thyroid disease, fibromyalgia and was misdiagnosed with the thyroid and forced on Abillify for 3 years. I gained over 40#, became very physically ill. And now I can’t sleep.
    2 years off of the damn crap and I think the Abilify is what did this to me. Any help??? Now I AM psychotic?

    • Hi Laira
      Thanks for your comment. Goodness, that sounds very unfortunate…what does your doctor say about your current sleep problems? Do you talk to them about it, and ask if any of your medical conditions or treatment could be causing it?
      Regards
      Ethan

  • hey
    i m a student of standard tenth
    in order to study well with a some entertaintment, i am regularly unable to manage my time and my everyday sleep consist of hardly 6 hours therefore i feel tired after a few hor work and get irritated easily
    day by day i am becoming agressive
    is there any solution
    plss tell me

    • Hi Ekta
      I think the only solution is to make more time for sleep. It’s an important part of having a good sleep routine that you decide in yourself that sleep is an important part of your day, and not something to be sacrificed.
      And if you think study is more important than getting a long night’s sleep, have a read of this article. It talks about research that shows students perform worse on less sleep, even if they stay up to study! So you might find less late night study and more sleep means better results.
      Regards
      Ethan

  • I once had an insomnia episode that lasted six weeks. I slept around 3/4 very very bad hours at night and some nights I didn’t sleep at all. On week 6 I got a prescription for bromazepan and that got me out of that state. I was completely altered and I couldn’t perform at work or exercise or even social interaction in the end. I really wasn’t myself, it was terrible. That was a year ago and I haven’t had anything close to that but I always have the pills just in case and I do take them ocasionally. I feel psychologically dependant to them since they got me out of that terrible state. I would love to be free of them someday. Thank you for this page, it feels really good to know there are people that go through the same!

    • Hi Emma
      Thanks for your comment. I’m glad you found the article helpful and reassuring to know that you’re not alone. I think what you describe is quite common – people often find something helps them sleep, and so are reluctant to completely let that thing out of their sight as a back-up plan. I’ve done the same myself with herbal remedies – just knowing I have them if I need them somehow makes me relax a bit more and sleep better. I guess it depends how often you take them. Perhaps you can try to slowly wean yourself off by attempting other things first rather than taking them if you hit a difficult patch. Try out all the good sleep habits that help people generally, and in time you should be able to tackle your sleep naturally without needing the pills again, hopefully!
      Regards
      Ethan

  • Hello Ethan!

    I am a recovering insomniac (trying to be positive here. Besides, it comes and goes…mostly just comes). And I have suffered from the effects of sleep deprivation. One time when I was a freshman at the university, I went for 52 hours without sleep. It was hard to feel the effects after the first 40 hours because I was on a road-trip, the constant partying kinda got in the way of any negative effects. But later, my head was foggy, everything was in slow motion and it felt like my head was underwater… the sounds were so muffled. But after a total blackout of about 11 hours I was cool.
    I’ve also had hallucinations because of lack of sleep. This one actually scared me and that’s when I decided to take affirmative action against insomnia. I was almost talking to a face that appeared on my cardigan in class!
    Thank you so much for sharing this. I needed this as I’m currently only getting 4 hours of sleep every night. I might have to make some serious changes in lifestyle. Thanks again Ethan.

    • Hi Joanne
      Thanks for your comment, and I’m glad you found the article helpful. 4 hours probably isn’t enough sleep on an on-going basis, so it sounds like some lifestyle changes might help. Sometimes the slow build up of sleep deprivation can go more unnoticed than in more extreme situations like your 52 hours. You’ll probably find that if you give yourself more time to sleep, life will be better!
      Regards
      Ethan

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