Long term effects of sleep deprivation

Jonathan Warren

Author: Jonathan Warren



Getting a good night’s sleep is a crucial element to overall health and wellbeing but unfortunately, modern lifestyle isn’t always conducive to getting enough sleep. Most adults work hard and play hard too, meaning our focus on getting a good night sleep takes a back seat. Over time, this lack of rest can have detrimental, long-terms effects on our health. 

Sleep deprivation definition and what lack of sleep can cause 

The term sleep deprivation is literally defined as a lack of sleep, but there are no exact upper and lower limits on this as individuals need varying amounts of sleep and what might be too little for one person can be more than enough for someone else. 

In the short-term, sleep deprivation symptoms can present as: 

  • Mood swings 
  • Inability to concentrate 
  • Unable to retain newly learned skills 
  • Low productivity 
  • Poor judgement 

These symptoms disappear once the individual begins to sleep enough for their body’s needs. However, in the long term the risks to health and the symptoms experienced are much more severe.  

How lack of sleep affects your brain 

Most adults have experienced brain fog. Late nights studying or working, or even an evening of drinks, can easily bring on confusion and disorientation the next day. Lack of sleep is a significant cause of feeling groggy and being unable to concentrate but in the short term or on a one off occasion, it is easy enough to work through the discomfort until able to get a good night’s sleep where we are back to full speed afterwards.  

If, however, we continue to fall into the trap of consistent poor sleep, our brain can start to deplete in its ability to perform normal tasks. The symptoms experienced from short term deprivation such as poor judgement and inability to concentrate can be heightened and other side effects can emerge, such as: 

  • Increased risk of accidents due to inability to carry out basic tasks such as driving 
  • Basic mood swings can progress into anxiety and depression 
  • Our memories can be impacted negatively both in the short and long term 

What does lack of sleep do to your body? 

Chronic sleep deprivation not only has a negative effect on your mind, but it can also have a direct effect on the way your body functions.  Physical side effects felt by sleep deprivation can include: 

  • A decreased immune system making you more susceptible to picking up colds and viruses 
  • Weight gain. When sleep deprived, the signals that are used to tell you to stop eating when you are full are often out of whack during sleep deprivation which means you are more likely to unnecessarily overeat 
  • Low sex drive 
  • Increased risk of serious health conditions such as diabetes. People who struggle to sleep well on a regular basis often have issues with the sugar-controlling chemical in their body’s known as insulin, which makes them more susceptible to a higher blood sugar level  
  • Heart disease caused by an increase in blood pressure 

How much is too little sleep? 

Although there are stories of power leaders and entrepreneurs surviving off four hours sleep a night and still managing to lead successful careers, this is an exception to the rule and most people need more than this to get by. In general, the amount of sleep you should be getting per night is dependent on your age and the older you get, the less sleep you typically need. Below are the recommended hours that the National Sleep Foundation have stated each age bracket should try and get to prevent effects of no sleep: 

  • 6 -13 year olds: 9-11 hours 
  • 14 – 17 year olds: 8-10 hours 
  • 18 – 64 year olds: 7-9 hours 
  • 65+: 7-8 hours 

Although these figures are what everyone should strive to in an ideal world, this is not exact and minor fluctuations either way may be fine. For example, young adults between the ages of 18 and 25 should still be able to function correctly if they get anywhere between 6 and 11 hours of sleep. Similarly, adults who are 65 and older should be able to get away with anywhere between 5 and 9 hours.  

The amount of sleep you ned each night can vary depending on factors such as stress, exercise and if you are ill, so there is no need to worry if you go above or below your bracket as long as you do not feel tired. 

Causes of consistent lack of sleep 

Sleep deprivation can be caused by several factors ranging from short term stress through to long term illness. 

Stress is a common cause of sleep deprivation, as it can lead individuals to feel they are unable to shut down their brain in order to go to sleep. One off stressors such as important interview is unlikely to place long term strain on your sleep but if you suffer from chronic, long term stress, you may find the effects more severe.  

Alcohol, caffeine and drugs can impact your ability to get to sleep, as well as the quality of sleep which happens.  

How to overcome sleep deprivation 

The only way to overcome sleep deprivation and the symptoms associated with it is to consistently get enough sleep. However, this can be easier said than done for some. If you struggle to sleep, there are two main ways you can help counter this without the aid of medication; behaviourally and cognitively. 

Examples of behavioural ways to aid with sleep include: 

  • Creating a relaxing bedtime routine which helps the brain to wind down and relax. Examples of good sleep hygiene include always allowing time for meditation, reading a book or cutting off your phone use at least two hours before you want to sleep 
  • Making sure your bedroom environment is relaxing by tidying and decluttering 
  • Creating a consistent exercise routine. There is no doubt that exercise is hugely beneficial for several reasons but tiring the body out through physical activity is one of the best ways to ensure a good night’s sleep. If you struggle with getting to sleep, you should schedule in exercise either in the morning or early afternoon as exercise too close to bedtime can have the reverse effect 

Cognitive therapy attempts to identify what triggers your sleep deprivation so that you can then start to explore changing behaviours to counteract the causes of your lack of sleep. 

Benefits of getting a good night sleep 

A good night’s sleep is essential for optimal cognitive performance and concentration, as well as ensuring your body and immune system are functioning normally. Fortunately, the side effects of sleep deprivation can easily be reversed once you begin to clock in the hours again. 

Most individuals will experience a poor night sleep at some point in our lives however, it is possible to overcome any short-term deprivation and prevent long term issues by taking small steps to get a good night’s sleep.