Effects Of Sleep Deprivation

About sleep deprivation

Sleep is an engrained necessity for humans. It is one of the activities we spend the most time doing throughout our life, to the degree that a quarter to a third of our life is spent sleeping. 

Although not fully understood, it is proposed that various processes occur while we sleep, with the most important ones being brain healing, metabolite elimination, and circuit reconfiguration.1,2 Getting enough sleep is essential in being able to think clearly, being vigilant and aware, and sustaining attention. Furthermore, sleep plays a crucial part in regulating emotions and consolidating memories.3

Sleep deprivation is a reduction in the quantity or quality of sleep you get. When you have healthy sleeping habits, sleep comes naturally, but those who are sleep deprived either do not get enough sleep due to a health condition, genetics, or other factors, or do not have adequate time set aside for sleep due to behaviour choices or everyday duties.

Sleep deprivation has a negative impact on quality of life, functioning, and well-being. 

The two types of sleep deprivation are:

  • Acute sleep deprivation: Occurs over a brief period, usually a few days or fewer, during which a person's sleep is significantly reduced.
  • Chronic sleep deprivation: Typically lasts for three months or more.

Effects of sleep deprivation

Sleep duration, quality, and timing affect your health in very different and distinct ways.4 The following are common signs to look out for to know if you are a sleep-deprived person:

  • Daytime drowsiness, especially while engaging in peaceful activities like driving, reading, or watching TV
  • Weight gain or loss
  • Forgetfulness or having difficulty learning new concepts 
  • Changes in mood, such as irritability or depression 
  • Problems focusing on or paying attention to a task
  • Slow and poor decision-making
  • Reduced energy levels

Though not an exhaustive list, the effects of sleep deprivation include the following:

  • Increase in blood pressure: Even in the absence of sleep deprivation, relatively modest sleep disturbances like poor sleep quality, taking a long time to fall asleep, and insomnia are linked to hypertension and other heart conditions.5
  • Brain functions: Sleep deprivation results in a decline in the ability to multitask and memorise.6,7,8 
  • Skin conditions: In acute sleep deprivation, the effect on the skin is usually mild, but chronic sleep deprivation can cause visible changes such as acne, larger pores, and change in skin tone. There is transepidermal water loss (loss of water between skin layers), less hydration, and a change in skin appearance and texture.9
  • Change in gait and other motor skills: You may lose coordination of your limbs or find that your manner of walking has changed.10
  • Poor mental health: A person who does not get enough sleep will have more frequent mental health episodes because the body doesn’t have enough time to destress and get rid of metabolites.2,11
  • Weight changes: Sleep deprivation may cause your eating habits to change, which can result in weight gain or weight loss. Weight gain typically occurs in people with high cholesterol levels due to increased cortisol, causing cravings for sugar and carbohydrates, which can lead to weight gain.
  • Growth: Low sleep quality can impede growth hormones, especially in children and adolescents.
  • Pain: People who are sleep-deprived experience increased sensitivity to pain.12

How and why

This section will discuss how much sleep is required and the probable causes of sleep deprivation.

How much sleep is enough

Getting enough sleep is vital for good health. A study indicated that 20% of people between the ages of 25 and 45 consistently slept 90 minutes shorter than was required to maintain healthy functioning.14

There is no specific duration of sleep at night that ensures you will awake feeling well rested. However, given your age and way of living, the national sleep foundation recommends the sleep durations listed below according to age:

  • Infants (0-3 months) require about 14 to 17 hours of sleep. Given that newborns rarely sleep through the night, this also applies to daytime naps. On average, older infants (4–11 months) need between 12–15 hours of sleep each day.
  • Toddlers (12-24 months) require about 11 to 14 hours of sleep every night..
  • Children aged 3-5 years should get between 10 and 13 hours a night, while ages 6 to 13 should aim for 9 and 11 hours.
  • Teenagers (14-17 years): As children age, there is a slight decline in their demand for sleep. Teenagers need 8 to 10 hours of sleep every night on average.
  • Adults 18 and above should strive for 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night, while the recommended amount for people over 65 is seven to eight hours.

Why does sleep deprivation happen

There are two stages of a good night’s sleep, REM (rapid eye movement) and NREM (non-rapid eye movement). Muscle tone, brain wave patterns, and eye movements differ during each sleep stage. Every night, the body goes through these stages four to six times in 90 minute cycles.15

The sleep cycle starts with NREM sleep, the first stage of the sleep cycle. The first phase of NREM occurs between the awake and sleeping states. The second phase is light sleep, during which respiration and heart rate are controlled, and body temperature decreases. Deep sleep then occurs in the third phase. The eyelids move quickly beneath closed lids as you cycle into REM sleep, and your brain waves resemble those of alertness. 

As we dream, our breathing quickens, and we experience momentary paralysis. The cycle repeats, but with each iteration, you spend more time in REM sleep and less time in the deeper phases three and four of sleep. You'll go through it four or five times on a regular night.16 Irregular sleep-wake cycles cause sleep deprivation and poor sleep quality. 

Causes of sleep deprivation in adults include:2,12,17.

  • Depression
  • Poor sleep hygiene
  • Stress
  • Ageing
  • Traumatic brain injuries
  • Medical conditions such as insulin resistance
  • Obesity
  • Chronic fatigue syndrome
  • Medication or drugs
  • Sleep problems like insomnia, restless leg syndrome, and sleep apnea
  • Circadian rhythm disturbance, including delayed sleep phase syndrome, jet lag from travelling through numerous time zones, or a late shift job

Causes of sleep deprivation in children and teenagers might also include:

  • Physiological change in sleep onset to later hours of the night
  • The start of puberty
  • Large adenoids and tonsils, as they interfere with breathing while sleeping
  • Behavioural conditions like autism spectrum disorder or ADHD

Treatment and prevention

Sleep deprivation is usually caused by external factors and is very rarely genetic, except in cases of fatal familial insomnia, which may require treatment if it affects the quality of life, or having a short sleep gene, which requires no treatment because people with this gene can withstand the adverse effects of sleep deprivation.17

How is sleep deprivation treated?

There are three main methods for treating sleep disorders:

  • Making behavioural and lifestyle changes
  • Treating any underlying physical and mental health issues you may have
  • Medication

The fundamental treatment for sleep deficiency is more sleep overall. What you can do to lengthen your sleep depends on what keeps you awake. Work on modifying your daily schedule to make room for extra sleep. 

How can we prevent sleep deprivation?

Health education on the importance of sleep and the effects of sleep deprivation helps to create awareness and prevent sleep deprivation. Two processes regulate sleep:

  • Circadian rhythm: Your circadian rhythm is when your brain signals the body to sleep by increasing melatonin when it senses darkness, and when it shuts it off as it senses light.
  • Sleep drive: Your body's hunger for sleep.

Prioritising getting adequate sleep, practising good sleep hygiene, and having a bedtime routine can help prevent sleep deprivation. 

Good sleep hygiene includes:

  • Sleeping in suitable clothing and on the right bedding 
  • Restricting the duration of daytime naps to less than 30 minutes
  • Engaging in regular exercise
  • Avoiding excessive phone use and exposure to screens 
  • Sticking to a consistent sleep pattern
  • Abstaining from stimulants like coffee and loud noises right before bed
  • Avoiding consuming heavy meals in the evening18,19

When and where to get help

If you notice you are experiencing a decline in your sleep, or are having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, and come to realise that it is affecting your quality of life drastically, consult a sleep physician or your healthcare provider. They will examine you for sleep problems or any bad sleeping habits that are reducing your overall amount of sleep. 


Sleep is a necessary and crucial biological function. In the absence of adequate sleep, frequent mental distress like sleep deprivation, psychosis, cardiovascular disease, insomnia, and a decline in brain function is bound to occur. Elevated cortisol, blood sugar, blood pressure, and other physical and mental health issues are some of the effects of sleep deprivation. Some of these issues may make falling and staying asleep much more difficult.

Good sleep hygiene practices help to prevent and, sometimes, treat sleep deprivation. Keep an eye on the duration, timing, and quality of sleep you are getting, as any change can indicate underlying conditions that may require medical attention.


  1. Cao, Junyu, et al. “Unraveling Why We Sleep: Quantitative Analysis Reveals Abrupt Transition from Neural Reorganization to Repair in Early Development.” Science Advances, vol. 6, no. 38, Sept. 2020, p. eaba0398. DOI.org (Crossref), Available from: https://doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.aba0398.
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  1. Havekes, Robbert, et al. “Sleep Deprivation Causes Memory Deficits by Negatively Impacting Neuronal Connectivity in Hippocampal Area CA1.” ELife, vol. 5, Aug. 2016, p. e13424. DOI.org (Crossref), Available from: https://doi.org/10.7554/eLife.13424.
  1. Peng, Ziyi, et al. “Effect of Sleep Deprivation on the Working Memory-Related N2-P3 Components of the Event-Related Potential Waveform.” Frontiers in Neuroscience, vol. 14, May 2020, p. 469. DOI.org (Crossref), Available from: https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2020.00469.
  1. Kim, Min Ah, et al. “The Effects of Sleep Deprivation on the Biophysical Properties of Facial Skin.” Journal of Cosmetics, Dermatological Sciences and Applications, vol. 07, no. 01, 2017, pp. 34–47. DOI.org (Crossref), Available from: https://doi.org/10.4236/jcdsa.2017.71004.
  1. Umemura, Guilherme S., et al. “Sleep Deprivation Affects Gait Control.” Scientific Reports, vol. 11, no. 1, Dec. 2021, p. 21104. DOI.org (Crossref), Available from: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-021-00705-9.
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This content is purely informational and isn’t medical guidance. It shouldn’t replace professional medical counsel. Always consult your physician regarding treatment risks and benefits. See our editorial standards for more details.

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Chimezirim Ozonyiri

Bachelor of Science - BS, Microbiology, General, Tansian University, Nigeria

Chimezirim has several years of experience in the healthcare, non-profit, and education sectors. She is passionate about health promotion and began her journey into health and lifestyle writing over two years ago.

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