The Health Effects of Lack of Sleep: Sleep Deprivation Symptoms & Treatment
Even the best sleepers have restless nights from time to time. Some nights will be better than others, no matter who you are! Occasional sleepless nights don’t usually cause major health effects. However, lack of sleep becomes a problem when you struggle with this issue regularly.
When you chronically don’t sleep enough, your physical health is impacted. You have a greater risk of developing multiple serious health conditions, including heart disease, dementia, and cancer, and your life span may even be cut short. Too little sleep over the long term can also lead to mental health issues such as anxiety and depression.
In this article, we will explain these effects more in-depth. Luckily, there are a few easy-to-follow solutions that can help you with your sleep deprivation, whether short-term or long-term.
How Much Sleep Do You Need?
The amount of sleep required to stay healthy varies from person to person. Necessary levels of sleep typically change over the course of your life and can even vary day-to-day.
Experts recommend different amounts of sleep per night based on your age:1
- Newborn (0-3 months): 14-17 hours, including naps
- Infant (4-12 months): 12-16 hours
- Toddler (1-2 years): 11-14 hours
- Preschool (3-5 years): 10-13 hours
- School age (6-12 years): 9-12 hours
- Teen (13-18 years): 8-10 hours
- Adult (18-64 years): at least 7 hours
- Older adults (at least 65 years old): 7-8 hours
Keep in mind, though, that these are general recommendations. Paying attention to how you feel during the day is still the best approach to assess how much sleep you need.
Additionally, making sure you’re in bed for a certain number of hours isn’t enough to help you feel well-rested. Researchers have found that the quality of your sleep is more important than the quantity. If you’re tossing and turning all night, it may not matter that you were in bed for eight hours — you may still feel sleepy during the day and be at risk for health problems.2
Spending more time in the deeper stages of sleep is key for avoiding sleep deprivation.
How Much REM Sleep Do You Need?
Not all sleep is equal. As you rest, your body goes through several different stages of sleep. The first two stages are lighter; during these stages, different processes such as your breathing and heart rate begin to slow down.3
Stage 3 sleep is the deepest sleep stage. Your body heals itself and builds up strength during this stage. The fourth sleep stage is rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. It is during this stage that you do most of your dreaming. REM sleep may be important for memory and learning.4
Getting high-quality sleep can help ensure that you spend enough time in the deepest stages of sleep. Researchers estimate that healthy adults spend about 13 to 23 percent of their sleep in stage 3. If you get seven hours of sleep per night, this equals about 55 to 97 minutes per night. REM sleep typically accounts for 20 to 25 percent of sleep, equivalent to about 84 to 105 minutes during a seven-hour sleeping period.5
The Acute Health Effects of Not Sleeping
When you don’t hit your target for enough hours of high-quality sleep, your health may suffer. However, there is a considerable difference between pulling an all-nighter and getting insufficient sleep on a regular basis. Not sleeping well for a short time period is unlikely to majorly impact your health in the long term.
How Bad Are All-Nighters for Health?
You may be tempted to forego sleep to work on a big project that is due. Or, you might experience very poor sleep for several nights in a row if you’re unusually stressed or worried about something. These situations may lead to health effects such as:6
- Increased feelings of stress due to higher levels of stress hormones
- Negative emotions or feelings, including sadness, worry, irritability, or impatience
- Being in a worse mood
- Having trouble focusing, remembering, or making decisions
- Extreme sleepiness
- Stomach pains
Research shows moderate sleep deprivation impairs your ability to complete monotonous and repetitive tasks first. It has little effect on challenging tasks that demand higher-order thinking. Because these tasks are complex, your hyperarousal system kicks in to keep you focused on the job.
The effects of not sleeping well for 24 or 48 hours are generally temporary. You will feel better once you’re able to get more sleep.
Long-Term Effects of Lack of Sleep
If you’re sleep deprived on a regular basis, health consequences can begin to pile up. You may experience problems with many different organs and body functions.
A lack of sleep can increase your chances of experiencing hypertension (high blood pressure) and elevated cholesterol levels — risk factors for heart disease. Multiple studies have found that coronary heart disease diagnoses are more common in those who get very little sleep each night (five or six hours or less). If you are chronically sleep deprived, you are also more likely to experience a heart attack or stroke.7
Sleep can affect how and what you eat. Too little sleep can increase levels of ghrelin (a hormone that makes you feel hungry) and decrease levels of leptin (a hormone that makes you feel full). This can make you more likely to crave unhealthy foods and to snack throughout the day or at night.8 Over the long term, you may have a 50% greater risk of obesity.9
Additionally, sleep deprivation can triple your risk of developing diabetes, and diabetes can in turn make it harder to sleep well.9 Sleep affects how your body uses insulin, a hormone that helps your cells absorb sugar from your blood. Too little sleep can lead to insulin resistance — your cells don’t respond properly to insulin, your blood sugar levels rise, and you have a higher chance of developing diabetes.10
If you have certain conditions that affect the digestive system, such as heartburn, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), or inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), you may find that your symptoms worsen when you don’t get enough sleep.6
The strength of your immune system is boosted as you sleep. Your body makes new white blood cells as well as substances like cytokines that help fight infection. Too little rest leads to reduced numbers of immune cells and a three times greater chance of getting a cold.9
Not getting enough sleep on a regular basis can cause dark circles to form under the eyes. It can also lead to higher levels of stress hormones, which damage collagen, a protein that keeps the skin firm and smooth. This may lead to more wrinkles.11
Long-term sleep deprivation can add years to your brain, making it function as if it were the brain of someone who is several years older. In the long haul, your risk of dementia rises by 33% when you’re chronically under-rested.9
Sleep greatly impacts mental health. Not getting enough shut-eye can raise your risk of developing long-term depression and anxiety. It can also make you more likely to drink too much alcohol. In teens, studies have linked a lack of sleep to suicide attempts.12
Multiple studies have found that when sleep is disrupted, people are more likely to be diagnosed with cancer. In particular, one study found that women who worked the night shift for more than 15 years had a 35% greater chance of developing colorectal cancer. Another study found that sleep disorders like obstructive sleep apnea led to more than double the risk of developing breast cancer.6
Risk of early death is four times higher in men who don’t get enough sleep. This risk is even higher for those who have health conditions like high blood pressure or diabetes.13 The link between early death and lack of sleep is less clear for women, however.
How To Get More Sleep
Thinking about some of these potential negative health effects can be scary. However, there are a few simple things you can do to help yourself get more sleep naturally. For a better night’s rest, practice good sleep hygiene — habits and behaviors that help boost sleep.
Set a Fixed Wake-Up Time
Do your best to set an alarm for the same time each day — and yes, this includes weekends. The more consistent you can be with your wake-up time, the stronger your sleep drive will be.
Your sleep drive is the process that helps you fall asleep. It is a feeling of “sleep pressure” that builds throughout the day, making you feel tired by the time night falls. When you sleep in one morning, your sleep drive won’t be as strong when you go to sleep that night.11
Build a Better Nighttime Routine
It often helps to allow yourself to wind down before laying down to sleep. If you attempt to crash into bed immediately after doing a lot of work or being very active, sleep may not come quickly.
Try to build a habit of doing the same activities each night before bed. When you begin your routine each night, you’ll be sending a message to your brain that it’s about time to sleep.11 Try listening to music that calms you, reading an enjoyable book, doing some light stretching, practicing meditation or breathing exercises, or taking a warm bath.
Don’t Over-Optimize Sleep
Often, the more you worry about sleep, the worse your sleep gets. When you become increasingly obsessed with tracking your sleep or getting a perfect night’s rest, you may start to feel like you are actually sleeping worse. Researchers call this “orthosomnia.”14
Your body generally knows how to handle sleep on its own. Sometimes the best thing you can do is to not get in the way by trying to optimize sleep too much. Bodies are built to handle short periods of stress. Your body knows how to re-establish healthy sleep patterns after a few days of dysregulation.
To learn more about optimal sleep hygiene, read our 5 Must-Know Tips for Better Sleep Hygiene and Wellness.
Long-Term Lack of Sleep Treatment
If your insomnia persists despite these modifications, your doctor may recommend cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I). CBT-I is based on the notion that how we think, behave, and feel are all interconnected and influence one another. This type of treatment can assist you in managing thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that disrupt sleep. Ultimately, it can help your body remember how to return to its routines with healthy sleep.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2017, March 2). How much sleep do I need? https://www.cdc.gov/sleep/about_sleep/how_much_sleep.html
- Kohyama J. (2021). Which Is More Important for Health: Sleep Quantity or Sleep Quality?. Children (Basel, Switzerland), 8(7), 542. https://doi.org/10.3390/children8070542
- National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. (2019, August 13). Brain basics: Understanding sleep. https://www.ninds.nih.gov/Disorders/Patient-Caregiver-Education/Understanding-Sleep
- Patel, A. K., Reddy, V., & Araujo, J. F. (2021). Physiology, Sleep Stages. In StatPearls. StatPearls Publishing. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK526132/
- Sleep Physiology. (2006). In Colten, H.R. & Altevogt, B. M. (Eds.), Sleep Disorders and Sleep Deprivation: An Unmet Public Health Problem. Institute of Medicine (US) Committee on Sleep Medicine and Research. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK19956/
- Medic, G., Wille, M., & Hemels, M. E. (2017). Short- and long-term health consequences of sleep disruption. Nature and Science of Sleep, 9, 151–161. https://doi.org/10.2147/NSS.S134864
- Covassin, N., & Singh, P. (2016). Sleep Duration and Cardiovascular Disease Risk: Epidemiologic and Experimental Evidence. Sleep medicine clinics, 11(1), 81–89. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jsmc.2015.10.007
- Ding, C., Lim, L. L., Xu, L., & Kong, A. (2018). Sleep and Obesity. Journal of Obesity & Metabolic Syndrome, 27(1), 4–24. https://doi.org/10.7570/jomes.2018.27.1.4
- Johns Hopkins Medicine. (2022). The Effects of Sleep Deprivation. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/the-effects-of-sleep-deprivation
- Chattu, V. K., Chattu, S. K., Burman, D., Spence, D. W., & Pandi-Perumal, S. R. (2019). The Interlinked Rising Epidemic of Insufficient Sleep and Diabetes Mellitus. Healthcare (Basel, Switzerland), 7(1), 37. https://doi.org/10.3390/healthcare7010037
- Cleveland Clinic. (2020, June 16). Here’s what happens when you don’t get enough sleep (and how much you really need a night). https://health.clevelandclinic.org/happens-body-dont-get-enough-sleep/
- Extent and Health Consequences of Chronic Sleep Loss and Sleep Disorders. (2006). In Colten, H.R. & Altevogt, B. M. (Eds.), Sleep Disorders and Sleep Deprivation: An Unmet Public Health Problem. Institute of Medicine (US) Committee on Sleep Medicine and Research. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK19961/
- Fernandez-Mendoza, J., & Vgontzas, A. N. (2013). Insomnia and its impact on physical and mental health. Current psychiatry reports, 15(12), 418. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11920-013-0418-8
- Baron, K. G., Abbott, S., Jao, N., Manalo, N., & Mullen, R. (2017). Orthosomnia: Are Some Patients Taking the Quantified Self Too Far?. Journal of clinical sleep medicine : JCSM : official publication of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, 13(2), 351–354. https://doi.org/10.5664/jcsm.6472
Dr. Colleen Ehrnstrom is a licensed clinical psychologist with a specialty practice in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). Areas of expertise include insomnia and other sleep disorders, anxiety, and depression.