Sleep Deprivation: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

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Sleep deprivation occurs when an individual does not get the recommended amount of sleep for their age group. Experts suggest healthy adults get between 7 and 9 hours of rest each night. Children need more sleep than adults. However, the specific amount kids need is also dependent upon their age. Top sleep and medical experts determine their recommended sleep durations by performing research and establishing a consensus on what amounts will provide optimal physical, mental, and emotional health. If an individual’s sleep duration isn’t within the recommended range, they can start showing symptoms of sleep deprivation.

There are five stages of sleep deprivation, and they are divided by time. The first stage is the initial 24 hours, the second is 36, the third is 48, the fourth is 72, and the fifth is 96 hours. During the first stage, the individual may exhibit drowsiness, irritability, increased stress, poor concentration, puffy eyes, and dark circles under the eyes. In the second stage, they can have impaired memory, trouble learning, increased appetite, poor immune function, worsened social cues, and more mistakes. During Stage 3, there’s an increase in irritability, more stress, anxiety, and severe fatigue. Stage 4 can lead to illusions, unorganized thinking, and detachment. Lastly, in Stage 5, the individual will have a diminished perception of reality along with extreme fatigue. The trouble deciphering reality is known as sleep deprivation psychosis. There are also two types of sleep deprivation, acute and chronic. Acute means that the individual’s sleep deprivation lasts for a short period, usually several days. Chronic sleep deprivation means that the individual is experiencing insufficient rest for three months or longer.

What are the Symptoms of Sleep Deprivation?

The symptoms of sleep deprivation depend on the stage of sleep deprivation. There are five stages of sleep deprivation.

Stage 1 sleep deprivation symptoms include drowsiness, irritability, anger, higher stress risk, diminished alertness, trouble concentrating, brain fog, fatigue, tremors, poor coordination, increased risk of accidents or errors, unhealthy food cravings, puffy eyes, and dark undereye circles. Stage 1 symptoms occur within the first 24 hours of sleep deprivation.

Stage 2 sleep deprivation symptoms include diminished memory, trouble learning, negative behavior changes, difficulty making decisions and taking social cues, slower reaction times, more mistakes, increased appetite and inflammation, worse immune function, and severe fatigue. These symptoms occur within 36 hours.

Stage 3 sleep deprivation symptoms include becoming detached, anxious, stressed out, irritable, and very tired. Stage 3 occurs within 48 hours.

Stage 4 sleep deprivation symptoms include illusions, delusions, mismanaged thinking, and detachment. Stage 4 occurs within 72 hours.

Stage 5 sleep deprivation symptoms include not understanding reality and an extreme need for rest. The inability to decipher reality is also known as sleep deprivation psychosis. However, this state of psychosis is usually treated by catching up on sleep. Stage 5 occurs within 96 hours.

Illustration of a Tired Woman Suffering to Fall Asleep

How much sleep do people need?

The following table lists how much sleep people need according to their age.

Age is one of the main factors in how much sleep people need. Kids’ sleep needs are more than what adults require because of the increased rate at which children grow physically and mentally. The sleep durations are based on expert consensus from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) for optimal mental and physical health.

If someone doesn’t achieve a sleep duration within this range, this is the first signal of sleep deprivation and when initial symptoms will start. Furthermore, if they do not get enough rest the following nights, they can move through the additional sleep deprivation stages and their symptoms.

What are the Causes of Sleep Deprivation?

Poor sleep hygiene, work demands, sleep disorders, and other medical issues can cause or contribute to sleep deprivation. Sleep hygiene refers to habits and lifestyle factors aimed at improving sleep. Conversely, poor sleep hygiene refers to practices that go against this. For example, an irregular sleep schedule and scrolling through your cell phone right before are poor sleep hygiene habits.

Certain work demands can also interfere with getting enough shuteye. For example, a large workload or shift work may result in a lack of sleep. Busy employees may sacrifice their sleep to meet an upcoming deadline, or overnight workers may struggle to get adequate rest during the day.

Sleep disorders are conditions that negatively impact an individual’s rest. These disorders can make it hard to fall and stay asleep, often resulting in insufficient rest. Examples of common sleep disorders include insomnia, sleep apnea, restless legs syndrome, and REM sleep behavior disorder.

Lastly, other medical issues can impact your amount of shuteye by making it hard to fall or stay asleep. Common health issues associated with sleep problems may include heartburn, diabetes, viral illnesses, and pain.

cat calming stressed woman illustration

What are the Stages of Sleep Deprivation?

There are five stages of sleep deprivation. We list these five stages in detail below.

Stage 1: Stage 1 of sleep deprivation falls within the first 24 hours. During this stage, the individual may experience drowsiness, irritability, anger, higher stress risk, diminished alertness, trouble concentrating, brain fog, fatigue, tremors, poor coordination, increased risk of accidents or errors, unhealthy food cravings, puffy eyes, and dark undereye circles.

Stage 2: Stage 2 of sleep deprivation falls within the first 36 hours. During this stage, the individual may experience diminished memory, trouble learning, negative behavior changes, difficulty making decisions and taking social cues, slower reaction times, more mistakes, increased appetite and inflammation, worse immune function, and severe fatigue.

Stage 3: Stage 3 of sleep deprivation falls within the first 48 hours. During this stage, the individual may experience detachment, anxiousness, stress, irritability, and extreme tiredness.

Stage 4: Stage 4 of sleep deprivation falls within the first 72 hours. During this stage, the individual may experience illusions, delusions, mismanaged thinking, and detachment.

Stage 5: Stage 5 of sleep deprivation falls within the first 96 hours. During this stage, the individual may experience difficulty interpreting reality and severe fatigue. The official name for trouble interpreting reality is sleep deprivation psychosis.

What are the Types of Sleep Deprivation?

The two types of sleep deprivation are acute and chronic. We list these types in detail below.

  1. Acute Sleep Deprivation: Acute sleep deprivation is when an individual experiences insufficient rest for a short amount of time. The timeline of acute sleep deprivation is typically several days.
  2. Chronic Sleep Deprivation: Chronic sleep deprivation is when a person doesn’t get enough rest for a longer period. The timeline for chronic sleep deprivation is typically three months or longer.

Can sleep deprivation cause hallucinations?

Yes, sleep deprivation can cause hallucinations. Hallucinations are when individuals perceive something to be present even though what they’re seeing is not real. Hallucinations will typically occur in the fourth or fifth stages of sleep deprivation when the person has lost sleep for 72-96 hours.

How common is sleep deprivation?

Sleep deprivation is very common. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that 1 in 3 American adults are sleep deprived. However, they also say that healthy sleep durations vary among demographics.

People in the Southeast United States report lower sleep durations than other parts of the country. College-educated and employed people report a healthier sleep duration than those who don’t have a degree or job. Lastly, married couples report better sleep duration than single, divorced, or widowed people.

Is sleep deprivation seen in kids?

Yes, sleep deprivation is seen in kids. Sleep deprivation in kids can be caused by factors such as stress, anxiety, mood disorders, and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, only 48 percent of school-age children in the United States get enough sleep. They add that the children who get adequate rest report a more positive view of school.

What are the Risks and Consequences of Sleep Deprivation?

The risks and consequences of sleep deprivation include short-term and long-term physical and cognitive health complications. Short-term side effects of sleep deprivation include difficulty focusing, an increased risk for accidents, less physical energy, and more negative moods. Long-term sleep deprivation effects include high blood pressure, memory problems, obesity, diabetes, heart attack, heart failure, or stroke.

Illustration of a Tired Sleepy Student

Can sleep deprivation cause death?

Yes, sleep deprivation can cause death. In most cases, though, sleep deprivation doesn’t directly cause death but rather fosters long-term health issues or increased accident risks that can result in death. For example, sleep-deprived people are more likely to develop cardiovascular problems that could be fatal such as a heart attack, heart failure, or stroke. Furthermore, sleep deprivation can put someone at a higher risk of getting into an automobile accident, which could be fatal.

One exception in which sleep deprivation directly causes death is Fatal Familial Insomnia (FFI), a rare genetic brain disorder that causes chronic insomnia. FFI may initially start as a mild form but, over time, becomes progressively worse, ultimately leading to death.

How common is sleep deprivation?

Sleep deprivation is very common. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that 1 in 3 American adults are sleep deprived. However, they also say that healthy sleep durations vary among demographics.

People in the Southeast United States report lower sleep durations than other parts of the country. College-educated and employed people report a healthier sleep duration than those who don’t have a degree or job. Lastly, married couples report better sleep duration than single, divorced, or widowed people.

How is sleep deprivation diagnosed?

Sleep deprivation is diagnosed by first looking at the individual’s symptoms. One of the most obvious signs of sleep deprivation is feeling drowsy during the day. Doctors will often diagnose sleep deprivation by asking the patient about their sleeping habits and any symptoms they are experiencing. If your physician suspects your tiredness results from a sleep disorder, they may have you take a sleep study.

What are the ways to treat sleep deprivation?

The ways to treat sleep deprivation will depend on what’s causing the issue and how severe it is. We list these treatments in detail below.

  1. Lifestyle Changes: Lifestyle changes can help prevent sleep deprivation or stop it from worsening. Examples of helpful habits for better rest include keeping a consistent schedule that allows for sufficient sleep, daytime exercise, avoiding caffeine and alcohol, cutting off electronic devices before bed, and creating a relaxing bedtime routine. These practices should help you get more sleep and improve your sleep quality.
  2. Sleep Disorder Treatment: Treatments for sleep disorders may also help mitigate sleep deprivation. However, the treatment will depend on the type of disorder. For example, those with sleep apnea may need a CPAP machine to improve their rest. Once a sleep disorder is diagnosed, your doctor will then set up an appropriate treatment plan.
  3. Medications: In more severe cases of insomnia, doctors may prescribe sleeping pills to help a patient catch up on rest. However, these pills are meant to be a temporary solution and are not typically intended for long-term use.

What to Avoid to Treat Sleep Deprivation

Certain foods, drinks, and electronic devices should be avoided to help treat sleep deprivation. Some foods can trigger stomach issues that make it harder to sleep soundly. For example, some foods to avoid before bed include spicy foods, onions, and fried foods because these are known to cause heartburn in certain people. Furthermore, consuming too much food before bed could lead to uncomfortable nighttime indigestion.

Caffeinated drinks and alcohol can also negatively affect how well you rest, and therefore, should be avoided. Caffeine delays sleep onset, which can prevent you from falling asleep on time, and although alcohol may make you tired, it’s also linked to more disturbed rest.

Lastly, you should avoid electronic screen devices before bed if you’re experiencing sleep deprivation. The reason for this is that these items emit a blue light that decreases the production of the melatonin hormone. Melatonin is a natural hormone released in greater amounts when it’s dark out to help you feel sleepy. However, exposure to blue light devices like cell phones and laptops suppresses melatonin, leaving you more alert. As a result, you may go to bed later and not get enough rest.

What is the difference between sleep deprivation and insomnia?

Insomnia is a sleep disorder in which a person has trouble falling and staying asleep, even if they allow plenty of time for sufficient rest. On the other hand, sleep deprivation is usually the result of someone not scheduling enough time to get enough rest.

Sleep deprivation is also a side effect of insomnia because insomnia prevents someone from sleeping enough. Therefore, sleep deprivation and insomnia are usually linked together because the first is a byproduct of the latter. Furthermore, people with insomnia will often experience symptoms associated with sleep deprivation, such as trouble concentrating, daytime fatigue, and irritability.

Can a mattress harm sleep length?

Yes, a mattress can harm sleep length. If a bed is uncomfortable, you may not fall asleep as quickly or periodically wake up during the night. As a result, this can decrease your total sleep duration.

For example, individuals who have arthritis and don’t have a bed that provides good pressure relief may experience a drop in their amount of rest, resulting in sleep deprivation. If your mattress negatively impacts how well you sleep, it’s vital to find a mattress for good sleep that will allow you to feel the most comfortable and supported.

Editor

Jill Zwarensteyn is the Editor for Sleep Advisor and a Certified Sleep Science Coach. She is enthusiastic about providing helpful and engaging information on all things sleep and wellness.

Based in Los Angeles, she is an experienced writer and journalist who enjoys spending her free time at the beach, hiking, reading, or exploring new places around town.

She’s also an avid traveler who has a personal goal of being able to successfully sleep on an airplane someday.

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