An Overview of Chronic Sleep Deprivation

Drowsy woman working on her computer.

 Getty / fizkes

Are you experiencing a case of chronic sleep deprivation? If so, you know that losing sleep is no joke. Accumulated sleep debt can lead to impairments in all areas of your life, and fixing the problem can be difficult depending on the cause.

That being said, there are steps you can take to cope with sleep deprivation and ensure it does not lead to more serious issues.

What Is Chronic Sleep Deprivation?

In the simplest terms, chronic sleep deprivation refers to the case of getting insufficient sleep or experiencing sleeplessness over an extended period of time. Chronic sleep deprivation can vary in its severity.

It may also be primary or secondary, meaning that it could be a problem in and of itself (e.g., caused by insomnia or anxiety) or caused by some other unrelated issue (e.g., a medical condition).

Signs

How do you know if what you are experiencing is chronic sleep deprivation?

If you live with insomnia or work shifts, you may be painfully aware that you're not getting enough sleep. Some people living with undiagnosed sleep disorders, however, may not understand right away that sleep debt is the cause of what they are feeling.

Below are some signs that you may be experiencing chronic sleep deprivation:

  • waking up not feeling refreshed
  • lacking energy for daily tasks
  • feeling sleepy during daytime hours
  • dark under eye circles
  • trouble concentrating
  • feeling irritable
  • yawning
  • rolling down your window or turning up your radio while driving your vehicle to try and stay awake
  • drifting out of your lane while driving
  • being unable to keep your eyes open
  • head nodding

Causes

What are the causes of chronic sleep deprivation? There are various potential causes, so not everyone who experiences itn will have the same underlying factors. Here are some common causes:

  • life stress (e.g., marital, financial)
  • working conditions (e.g., overwork, work stress, shift work)
  • medical conditions
  • sleep disorders (e.g., sleep apnea, insomnia)
  • mental health issues (e.g., bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, restless legs syndrome)
  • fatal familial insomnia (a neurodegenerative disease that results in eventual death due to the inability to experience sleep beyond stage 1 of NREM; this condition leads to panic, paranoia, phobias, hallucinations, dementia, weight loss, and death within three years)
  • school schedules (e.g., teenagers need to sleep later and stay up later according to their physiology, but school schedules often conflict with this)
  • using too much caffeine close to bedtime
  • screen use too close to bedtime
  • frustration or worry about being unable to fall asleep due to insomnia

Effects

The effects of chronic sleep deprivation are numerous. If you're dealing with this issue, it may have far-reaching effects on various areas of your life.

Physical Effects

The physical effects of sleep deprivation can range from decreased daily functioning to more long-term health issues. Below are several such effects:

  • accidents in the workplace
  • high blood pressure
  • risk of heart attack and stroke
  • heart failure
  • increased risk of mortality
  • overall fatigue
  • tremors in the hands
  • headaches
  • increased risk of fibromyalgia
  • increased risk of seizures
  • increased appetite and related weight gain (due to hormone fluctuations)
  • muscle soreness and aching
  • increased risk of type 2 diabetes
  • lowered libido
  • lowered fertility

Mental Effects

Some of the most significant negative effects of sleep debt may not obvious to an outside observer, but can cause severe impairment on a daily basis, including:

You may be at a higher risk of some of these effects if you are already dealing with a physical or mental health condition. Many of the effects of sleep deprivation can also have adverse secondary effects on your life, such as interfering with your relationship, impacting your judgment, and reducing your overall quality of life.

Treatment

Usually, treating chronic sleep deprivation will involve treating the underlying cause or causes. For example, in the case of insomnia, treatment might include cognitive-behavioral therapy to deal with the worrying component of being unable to fall asleep. Similarly, in the case of sleep apnea, this condition would be treated.

In this way, it is important to figure out what the underlying case of chronic sleep deprivation is so that treatment can be tailored to that problem.

Coping

What is it going to take for you to cope better with chronic sleep deprivation? There are many different strategies that you can employ if you want to get more sleep and feel better. Below are some to get you started.

Improve Sleep Habits

Are you getting enough sleep? Adults aged 18 years and older need 7 to 8 hours of sleep per day for optimal functioning. If you aren't getting this much sleep, here are some tips to help increase the odds that you will get to sleep, get better sleep, and feel more rested:

  • Catch up on sleep on the weekends if you are unable to get enough sleep during the week. Go to bed when you feel tired and sleep until you wake up naturally (without an alarm clock). This could mean sleeping as much as 10 hours on the weekend.
  • Avoid caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine, particularly in the hours close to bedtime.
  • Get regular exercise but don't do vigorous exercise close to bedtime
  • Maintain a regular sleep schedule as much as possible (go to bed and get up at the same time every day)
  • Only use the bedroom for sleeping and sex (i.e., no computers, television, or other activities)
  • Ensure that your sleeping area is dark and cool enough to be comfortable
  • If you have trouble falling asleep, try relaxation techniques designed to help you calm down such as guided meditation, guided imagery, deep breathing, or progressive muscle relaxation
  • If you have insomnia, see a therapist for strategies on how to calm your anxious mind to make it easier to eventually fall asleep
  • Keep a sleep log or diary where you write down the time that you fall asleep and wake up each day. This will help you track whether you are getting enough sleep, and will also help your doctor to understand your sleep patterns if you need to ask for advice.
  • Attend a sleep study to evaluate whether you have a sleep disorder or medical condition that could be affecting your sleep.
  • Avoid large meals before bedtime.
  • Spend time outdoors whenever possible during the day to make it easier to sleep at night.
  • Take a relaxing hot bath before bedtime.
  • If you take naps, try to restrict them to 20 minutes or less, so that they don't interfere with your regular sleeping patterns.
  • If you are a shift worker, try to limit shift changes, take naps to make up for lost sleep, and use curtains that block out daylight if you must sleep during off times.
  • If you find yourself struggling to stay awake while driving, stop and take a 15 to 20 minute nap. Also, as much as possible, avoid driving alone between midnight and 6 am.

Sleep Deprivation and Depression

We know that sleep and mental health are intertwined, but it's worth saying a few more things on the topic. First, it helps to understand exactly what happens when you are sleeping.

There are two types of sleep: NonREM sleep and REM sleep.

During NonREM sleep, everything in your body relaxes. This is the period during which your immune system is restored. it's also called slow wave sleep.

Then, during REM sleep, your body becomes in an alert state, similar to when you are awake. During REM sleep, you dream, and you discharge various neurotransmitters.

Each night, you cycle through about 3 to 5 cycles of each of these types of sleep.

The interesting part about this last fact is that because of this, chronic sleep deprivation may actually act as an antidepressant for some people experiencing clinical depression.

We already know that people experiencing a manic episode as part of bipolar disorder appear to need less sleep.

So, what researchers think happens is that in people who have clinical depression, when REM sleep is disrupted, there is improvement in mood because of increased serotonin, tryptophan, taurine, etc. In other words, the concentrations of these neurotransmitters build in the brain instead of being cleared out. Interestingly, this effect seems to be linked to a tendency for eveningness, or finding it easier to sleep later and go to bed later.

However, the odds of relapse when using this "treatment" are high. Using light therapy may reduce the risk for relapse.

How to Get More Sleep

If you are living with chronic sleep deprivation, you know that it can disrupt all areas of your life. However, that does not mean that you have to live with this condition without relief. If you have not already, please go visit your doctor and tell him or her about the symptoms that you are experiencing. It's important that medical causes be ruled out before other options are explored.

And, there's much that you can do on your own to cope with sleeping issues. Be sure that you are following best practices to get 8 hours of sleep.

When that's not possible, try to get caught up on your sleep when you can, because lack of sleep accumulates in the same way that a debt snowballs.

Finally, know that you are not alone living with chronic sleep deprivation. As our world has changed and people are working various schedules, glued to technology, and finding it harder and harder not to worry themselves to sleep at night—you're not the only one. If your doctor has ruled out any physical cause, it's possible that talk therapy such as cognitive behavioral therapy could help you to regulate your worrying at night.

Some simple tips to get started would include setting aside a "worry time" so that you don't have to go over your problems at night and instead deal with them at a set time each day. Another tip would be to keep a notebook beside the bed to jot down problems and issues as you think of them, so that your mind does not keep churning through them as you try to get to sleep.

A Word From Verywell

Have you made a plan to deal with your chronic sleep deprivation? That's the best way to make sure that you are actually taking action and not just gathering information. At some point, it's important to sit down alone or with your doctor to make an action plan with concrete steps that will help you to get your sleep deprivation under control.

What's more, you could find that once you start sleeping better, you have more energy and feel better able to deal with daily issues. It could be that you are more sleep deprived than you realize and that it will be only through changes to improve your sleep that you'll finally notice a change during your daily waking hours.

What's your plan? Be sure to write one down now while you still have all this information fresh in your mind. And, if you're hoping to help a friend or family member, be sure to jot down notes on what might help that person so that you don't forget the next time you see them.

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