Sleep Deprivation:
Why Rest Is More Important Than You Think

Sleep deprivation, a lack of rest, has real consequences on your physical health, your mental well-being, your daily performance, and your general safety.


Insomnia is one of the most commonly reported sleep disorders, with one in seven adults saying they have chronic insomnia.

But sleep is one of the most important activities of the brain, helping you to consolidate memories, rehearse emotions, form connections for creativity and ingenuity, and fine-tune metabolism.

Finding the right set of sleep hygiene practices and nighttime routines for you are crucial to optimizing your rest and avoiding the consequences of sleep deprivation.

It’s such a strange feeling. You’re lying in bed completely exhausted. Your mind is burnt out and your body feels heavy.

You close your eyes ready to drift off. And then…nothing happens.

You continue to lie there, completely awake.

You start tossing and turning, watching the late-night minutes slowly tick by at an agonizing pace. You start to grow more and more frustrated as you realize the longer you lay like this, the less rest you’re going to get. And even more importantly, the more tired you’re going to be in the morning.

It’s an evil feedback loop. You’re so exhausted that you can’t catch any zzzs. Yet not sleeping is leaving you feeling even more tired.

So why can’t you sleep?


Why Can’t I Sleep?

There are innumerable reasons why you might find yourself in the above scenario, including your general health, your lifestyle, and of course your sleeping habits.

The inability to get a full night of rest is what’s known as insomnia and it usually occurs in two ways:

  1. You can’t fall asleep; or
  2. You can’t stay asleep

And it’s one of the most commonly reported sleep disorders, with one in seven adults saying they have long-term insomnia.

Long-term, or what’s clinically known as chronic insomnia, occurs when a person has trouble sleeping at least three nights a week for at least three months.

But insomnia isn’t always chronic; instead, it can occur for shorter periods, what’s known as acute insomnia.

Acute insomnia is usually the result of some life change or event, with some of the most common including:

  • Stress or anxiety
  • A significant life change (new child, divorce, new job, etc.)
  • Travel, time change, or jet lag
  • Change in work schedule or work shift
  • Sleep disorders such as sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome, or sleep terrors
  • An inappropriate sleep schedule (staying up too late or waking up too early)
  • Poor sleep hygiene
  • Seasonal Affective Disorder
  • Change in health
  • Need to use the restroom
  • Pain
  • Using phones and laptops until the very last minute before bedtime

Generally, acute insomnia lasts for a few days or even a couple of weeks. And while it usually resolves itself eventually, it can still be a completely frustrating experience while it’s happening.

Frankly put:

Sleep is highly underrated and undervalued.

It’s commonly thought of as a block of time where not much happens. But this typical misconception couldn’t be more wrong. In fact, those hours of shut-eye you get each and every night are full of activities that benefit your mind, body, and performance.

Dr. Alex Dimitriu, a Stanford-trained Psychiatrist and Sleep Specialist can’t emphasize the importance of sleep enough:

“Sleep, it turns out, might be one of the most important activities of the brain - necessary to consolidate memories, rehearse emotions, form connections for creativity and ingenuity, and also fine-tune our metabolism. Fine-tuning both sleep and wake states has led to some truly amazing breakthroughs for my clients.”


Impact On Your Physical Health

Regardless of why you can’t get some shut-eye, a lack of sleep can have very real effects on your general health and life.

For starters, sleep deprivation can lead to more than just repeated yawning and feeling groggy throughout the day. It can lead to uncomfortable and even serious side effects for your body.

Some possible side effects of sleep deprivation include:

  • An increase in your blood pressure
  • A weakened immune system
  • Weight gain
  • An increase in your risk of serious diseases like type 2 diabetes and heart disease
  • Impairment in your balance and coordination skills

Simply put: failing to get enough rest each night is more serious than most of us realize.

Research also shows that sleep deprivation can mimic the effects of alcohol on the body. So your body can experience the same impairments you have after a few too many. This means you’re also putting yourself at heightened risk when doing activities like driving.


Consequences To Your Mental Health

Your physical body isn’t the only part of you that’s affected by poor sleep quality, however. Your mental wellness is also impacted.

Disruption to regular shuteye can wreak havoc on the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex, the parts of your brain that are responsible for emotional responses.

According to Harvard Medical School:

“Sleep problems may increase the risk for developing particular mental illnesses, as well as result from such disorders.”

Greater fatigue can make managing your emotions and mental wellbeing tough and can even lead to:

  • Changes in your mood
  • Increased likelihood for anxiety and depression
  • Impaired attention and an inability to focus
  • Impaired memory
  • Irritability
  • Increased risk of substance abuse


Performance Repercussions

Not only are you jeopardizing both your physical health and your mental wellness when you don’t achieve healthy rest, but you’re also setting yourself up to not perform at your peak abilities.

Lack of sleep can negatively impact your quality of life and impair your performance.

Perhaps most obvious, sleep deprivation leaves you with lower than normal energy levels.

You have a lot to get through in the 24 hours you’re given in a day. And not setting aside the right amount of those hours for rest means you won’t have the energy to get everything else done that you need to.

You’ll find that you have trouble concentrating, making you less productive and less likely to get all of your work done.

During rest, the connections between new information you’ve learned are strengthened and you’re better able to retain and recall that information.

Ever have trouble remembering what you were going to do next? It may be because of a lack of shuteye. Sleep deprivation can leave you with memory issues.

Simply put: dozing off is a secret weapon to peak performance.

As Why We Sleep author Matthew Walker puts it: “Sleep is the greatest legal performance-enhancing drug that most people are probably neglecting”.


General Safety And Wellbeing Issues

Last, but certainly not least, sleep deprivation can put your general safety and wellbeing at risk.

Not getting enough rest makes you more prone to accidents.

For instance, a sleep deficit slows your reaction time, making a car accident more likely. It also makes it easier for you to become distracted, keeping your mind from staying focused on the task at hand.

The effects of up to 22 hours of sleep deprivation are comparable to a 0.08 percent blood alcohol level.

Finally, a lack of sleep increases your likelihood of risk-taking behavior, including everything from increasing your use of substances to skipping over important steps that ensure your safety.

In summary:

Not getting enough shuteye can have serious consequences in all parts of your life.

Ciara’s Story

The past two years have held a lot of changes for Ciara. New city, new job, moving away from friends and family, having friends and family move away from her.

It was a whirl of change that hit her all at once. And it left her unable to drift off at night.

A rough night of sleep wasn’t totally out of the ordinary for Ciara. In fact, during college, she regularly lived off of only 5-6 hours of rest at night, or even less. And the lack of sleep rarely phased her.

And as she moved on from college into her first job, she remained a night owl, often staying awake into the late-night hours.

But now, something was different. The many changes happening in her life left her feeling more anxious than normal. And that anxiety was keeping her from falling asleep more and more often.

She noticed an impact on her days.

She was less sharp at work and more than once showed up mentally unprepared for meetings. She would show up to a meeting wanting so badly to be able to intelligently contribute but her foggy mind left her feeling too scared to speak up. She was nervous they’d ask her follow-up questions and she wouldn’t be sharp enough to intelligently answer.

She was more irritable and could come off as surly to those around her. She couldn’t keep up with her friends and often left them early when they went out at night. She found herself being short to her friends and boyfriend, even to the point where she questioned herself, thinking “Why am I reacting this way?”.

Overall, her generally positive attitude had been replaced with someone who was removed. She didn’t like the changes she was seeing in herself and knew she had to do something about it.

Never one to be afraid to ask for help, she started asking all of her closest friends and family for recommendations.

She began experimenting with different tools and techniques- everything from meditation to supplements to scents and more.

What Helped Ciara?

Meditation: “I started using the Calm App and found that it actually helped me. I found the adult bed stories to be particularly helpful. You’ll laugh when you listen to them in the daytime, but if you’re laying in bed and put this on it somehow magically gets you to sleep without you even realizing it. It also will shut off so you don’t have to worry about it running all night.”

CBD Oil: “My friend gave me some samples and they were amazing! It calmed me down and softly put me to sleep (and kept me asleep). And when I woke up, I did feel deeply refreshed.”

Lavender Candles: “In general, I find candles to be super soothing and less intense than having my bedroom light on. It’s a nice transition from my busy day to relax before bed. I also recently bought dried lavender that I keep in a vase near my bed that I also find very soothing.”

Reading: I absolutely love binging Netflix shows in my bed before sleep and scrolling through Instagram. But I’m making a conscious effort to stop this. Now instead, I keep a variety of books by my nightstand. I put my phone on the charger, away from my bed, stow my laptop, and read until I feel sleepy. This has helped me immensely and I really recommend it.”


Sleep Deprivation Costs

Now that we know how sleep affects your mind, body, and overall well-being, let’s talk about the actual costs of deprivation.

That’s right: not having a healthy rest schedule costs you (and the economy) money.

Sleep deprivation is seen as a social norm in many places throughout the world, including the U.S. It’s a point of pride to see who can rest less and hustle harder.

It’s a right of passage in college to pull all-nighters and pass exams, even though we know lack of sleep contributes to exam anxiety.

Employees are expected to stay up-to-date on emails into the late-night hours.

But these are more than just bad habits; in fact, they have very real costs to both us personally and the companies we work for.

Knowing that sleep is so detrimental to our health, it shouldn’t be a surprise that sleep deprivation leads to an increase in healthcare costs.

For example, sleep deprivation costs the US economy $400B annually. And decreased productivity costs $2,280 per employee annually.

We stay up later to get more done, but end up accomplishing less because we’re tired.

But despite these losses, our culture is still made for sleep deprivation.


Signs You’re Probably Sleep Deprived

So how do you know if you’re more than just a little tired?

Here are a few signs to keep an eye out for:

  • You feel groggy often, even after a full night of “rest”
  • You yawn frequently
  • You’re irritable and moody
  • You have difficulty learning new things
  • You’re forgetful
  • You can’t concentrate
  • You’re hungry– more than usual
  • You’re clumsy
  • You don’t have the motivation you need to get things done in your day
  • You use caffeine or carbs as an energy crutch

If you’ve been experiencing any of these signs for more than a few days or even a few weeks, it’s time to take action and seek out help.


The Five Stages Of Sleep

There are five stages of sleep that happen in a repetitive, cyclical pattern.

But before we dive into the different stages, let’s first differentiate between REM and NREM sleep. Each of the five stages is classified as either Rapid Eye Movement (REM) or Non-Rapid Eye Movement (NREM).

REM sleep gets its name from the rapid eye movement underneath your eyelids that takes place. This is the phase where you’re the most difficult to wake up. Here, your body is very still but your brain is incredibly active. Most dreaming takes place during REM.

NREM, on the other hand, is marked by less activity in the brain and more body movement. Most of your sleep time is spent in NREM sleep.

As Dr. Dimitriu puts it:

“NREM or deep sleep is usually associated with the formation and consolidation of long-term memory. This is when the brain off-loads information from short-term to long-term / permanent storage. The brain undergoes a pretty substantial chemical cleanse during deep or NREM as well, known as the glymphatic system. In REM, the brain tests new possibilities and relationships - it may try to find associations between loose pieces of information, and will also rehearse emotional responses to past and future events.”

Stage 1: Light Sleep

The first stage is characterized by the lightest sleep. Here, you’re just starting to drift off and your rest can easily be disturbed by loud sounds or too much light. Your muscles are slowly beginning to relax, your breathing is at a regular rate, and you’re experiencing a general sense of drowsiness taking over your body.

Stage 2: NREM Sleep

The second stage is when you really begin to move into NREM. Your brain is still relatively inactive and your body may still have some movement. But you’re falling into a deeper rest and aren’t as easily aroused by noises or light around you.

Stages 3 & 4: Deep Sleep

You begin to experience deep sleep in stage 3 of the cycle. This is one of the most important stages of sleep as evidence suggests it’s the most restorative stage of rest.

When you’re in deep sleep, you’re harder to wake up. Some studies have even found that some people won’t wake to even very loud noises when they’re in this stage. In the case that you are woken up during this phase, you’ll feel groggy.

Stage 5: REM Sleep

The final stage is what’s known as REM and it’s quite different compared to the other stages.

Again, this stage is associated with high brain activity and is where you experience your most vivid dreams. Brain scans show activity to be very similar to wakefulness during REM.

Your body, on the other hand, is paralyzed. But your heart rate and breathing tend to increase during this stage.

On average, you’ll move through the full cycle every 90 minutes. So if you get a full 8 hours of sleep, you’ll likely go through five full cycles.


What About Napping?

In general, naps can be good for most people.

In fact, according to Dr. Dimitriu: “A short, well-timed nap, may have more benefit than even drinking caffeine - and some do combine both - a nap and caffeine just before, for a double boost of energy.”

Napping has also been shown to improve brain function and even boost creativity.

But before you hit the hay in the middle of the day, it’s important to note that there are right and wrong ways to nap. Napping “wrong” can lead to a vicious cycle of poor sleep at night and a greater need to nap by day.

Napping should be kept to a maximum of 30 minutes and ideally be done before sunset. Longer naps, or naps taken later in the day, can impair your rest at night.

Also, be sure to combine a nap and caffeine early enough in the day so you’re not interfering with your shuteye at night.

But napping isn’t for everyone. There’s even genetic evidence that suggests some people are just better nappers than others.


Signs You’re A Healthy Sleeper

What does healthy sleep look like?

Everyone is a little different and it can be hard to compare what a night of truly restorative shuteye looks like for you compared to someone else.

Here are a few signs to look for:

  • You’re able to wake up…without using an alarm
  • You’re able to maintain a healthy weight
  • You don’t need caffeine as a crutch to survive your day
  • You don’t experience significant grogginess during the day
  • You don’t crave junk food
  • Your skin is clear
  • You’re motivated
  • You’re energized
  • You’re generally in a good mood

Paul’s Story

It came out of seemingly nowhere. Suddenly, in the middle of winter, Paul found that he couldn’t stay asleep throughout the night. Nearly every night, he found himself waking up, unable to fall back asleep.

It was incredibly frustrating, even a little embarrassing. Paul runs a site dedicated to sleep, providing advice to others looking for rest. Yet he couldn’t even get rest himself.

He’d set aside 8-9 hours to rest; instead, he’d only actually sleep for 6 hours…and those 6 hours weren’t particularly restful.

Despite his tossing and turning, Paul usually felt fine in the mornings- energetic even. But then in the afternoon, he would get hit hard with fatigue. At one point, he even asked his girlfriend to pinch him awake if he fell asleep during a yoga class.

Even more, he noticed a sharp turn in his mood. He was snapping at the people he loved and honking at strangers when driving.

Something had to change and he dove deep into research for possible solutions. He came up with three likely causes for his problems:

  1. Heat
  2. Low blood sugar
  3. Cramped sleeping space

And he immediately set out to address all three.

What Helped Paul?

To fix the feeling of being overheated during the night, he bought a weighted blanket and removed the memory foam topper he had previously been using. For low blood sugar, he started eating a bowl of warm oatmeal shortly before bed. And to fix his cramped sleeping space problem, he upgraded to a king-sized bed.

He noticed these changes leading him to better rest with fewer wake-ups.


How Many Hours Should You Sleep Each Night?

For most adults, the optimal amount of shuteye time lies somewhere between 7-9 hours each night with each person being a little different.

Your exact “magic number” depends on a few different factors including your age, your body’s need, your sleep debt, any health conditions, and more. Your magic number may also change over time as these different factors change for you.

To get a better idea of how many hours you need, pay attention to:

  • How long it generally takes you to fall asleep
  • When you tend to naturally wake up
  • Whether or not you need an alarm to wake up
  • How you feel in the morning and throughout your day


How To Get The Most Out Of Your Sleep

Again, everyone is a little different and different tools and practices can help different people fall asleep and stay asleep.

There are, however, some general best practices that can help you get more out of your night’s rest:

  • Have a set bedtime
  • Find time to be active during the day
  • Get daily sunlight or bright light exposure during daytime hours
  • Put away all screens at least an hour before going to bed
  • Stop drinking caffeine late in the day
  • Avoid long daytime naps

Dr. Dimitriu recommends practicing good sleep hygiene as a way to better optimize your rest time. Think basic principles such as keeping the room dark and cool while, avoiding caffeine or stimulants late in the day, and creating a relaxing bedtime routine.

What’s poor sleep hygiene? For example, using the bedroom for non-sleep activities.

No’s for the bedroom should include: eating, working and hanging out. Anything that’s not sex or sleep doesn’t belong in the bedroom.

Also, it’s important to keep exercise as well as alcohol and caffeine consumption in mind as all three can cause you to have a lighter, less refreshing shuteye.

Exercise is best avoided in the 3-4 hours before bed - it can increase your metabolism, which is the opposite effect of getting a good rest at night.

Alcohol, though sedating in the very short term, kills deep sleep and REM and results in lighter, less refreshing sleep overall. The further alcohol is kept from bedtime, the better.

Also, last but certainly not least, it’s important to have a set wake-up routine.


Tracking Your Sleep

If you’re looking for a way to get more consistent rest, tracking your sleep patterns over time can be helpful.

And there are a lot of tools available that can help you do this. Most fitness trackers have a function that allows you to track your rest. There are even a few trackers that are dedicated just to tracking patterns like the Oura Ring.

But you don’t have to necessarily invest in a tool to keep track of your shuteye. Using a sleep journal is still considered a valid way to look at how you’re doing. Here you’ll note information like:

  • What time you went to bed
  • What time you woke up in the morning
  • How easy it was for you to fall asleep
  • How you felt in the morning
  • How many times you woke up in the middle of the night
  • What factors disturbed your rest

You’ll mark this information every day and then review it after a few weeks to see if you can identify any patterns of how different factors affect your shuteye.


When Is It Time To See A Sleep Specialist?

It’s not unusual to experience a poor night’s sleep every once in a while. But if you notice your sleep debt is beginning to have negative effects on your life, it may be time to seek help from a sleep specialist.

Here are some reasons you might consider seeking sleep treatment:

  • Periods of witnessed loud snoring or gasping for air
  • Waking up numerous times per night
  • If you suspect you have a sleep disorder
  • If non-medication solutions haven’t helped you
  • If your life is being adversely affected
  • If you regularly have trouble resting (not a short-term problem)
  • If you’re tired during the day even after getting a full night’s rest

According to Dr. Dimitriu:

“Any sleep issue that persists beyond a week or two should be discussed with your doctor. Episodes of snoring or apnea (not breathing) during the night are also important to address immediately. Having significant daytime sleepiness (not just fatigue), especially while driving, should be discussed promptly. If there is any significant change in daytime symptoms, such as increased energy, agitation, anxiety, depression, or suicidal thoughts, you should seek help.”

More Than Tired has a search tool that can help you find a sleep specialist in your local area.

There are several treatment options an expert can offer you:

  • Prescription medications, including alternatives to heavy sleep aids like Ambien, Lunesta, and Sonata. These might include off-label medications commonly prescribed like Gabapen, Trazodone, or Hydroxyzine
  • Guidance on non-prescription options, like melatonin
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for insomnia (CBT-i)
  • Sleep coaching
  • Sleep hygiene guidance