What Happens When You Don’t Get Enough Sleep?

July 9, 2023 (Last updated on: July 24, 2023)
A man in the bed cannot sleep.

Sleep is an integral part of our lives and well-being. It is as necessary for survival as food and water, yet many disregard its importance. Experts recommend that most adults aim for seven to nine hours of sleep per night for optimal health, as the National Sleep Foundation states.

However, millions of people across the globe regularly get less than this recommended sleep duration, often resulting in a poor night’s sleep. The book “Why We Sleep” by Matthew Walker, a sleep specialist, explores the importance of sleep and the implications of not getting enough shut-eye.

A Glimpse into the Issue of Sleep Deprivation

When we talk about ‘enough sleep,’ we often refer to both the duration and the quality of sleep. A consistent sleep schedule, achieving enough sleep, and maintaining high-quality sleep are all integral to overall health and well-being.

However, when we don’t get enough quality sleep, we become sleep-deprived, which can cause various health issues, both physical and mental.

What is Sleep Deprivation?

Sleep deprivation occurs when an individual gets less sleep than they need to feel alert and well-rested. According to “Sleep Disorders and Sleep Deprivation: An Unmet Public Health Problem,” a book published by the Institute of Medicine, the adverse effects of sleep deprivation can lead to various health problems and significantly impact an individual’s quality of life.

Factors Contributing to Sleep Deprivation

Many factors can contribute to sleep deprivation. These range from personal habits and lifestyle choices, such as staying awake too late using electronic devices, to medical conditions like sleep disorders. Shift workers are particularly susceptible to sleep deprivation due to irregular sleep schedules. Additionally, older adults often experience trouble sleeping due to changes in their body’s ability to regulate sleep.

The Basics of Sleep Quality and Quantity

The definition of ‘enough sleep’ varies from person to person. As a general guideline for how much sleep is, the National Sleep Foundation suggests seven to nine hours of sleep for a healthy adult. The book “Sleep: A Comprehensive Handbook” mentions that enough sleep is when you wake up feeling refreshed and remain alert throughout the day. A lack of sleep or poor sleep quality, even occasionally, can significantly impact your physical and mental health.

The Role of Sleep Quality

Sleep quality is as essential as sleep duration. Even if you’re spending eight full hours of sleep in bed, poor sleep quality—having trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or experiencing sleep disorders—can still lead to sleep deprivation. According to the Sleep Research Society, good health is directly associated with quality sleep, where individuals experience fewer awakenings at night and spend more time in deep, restorative sleep stages.

Short-term Effects of Not Getting Enough Sleep

In the short term, a lack of sleep can lead to significant physical health implications. These include a weakened immune system, high blood pressure, weight gain, and an increased risk of accidents. Sleep-deprived individuals are likelier to experience uneven skin color and weight gain and appear less healthy.

Psychological Effects

Psychological effects of sleep deprivation can include irritability, mood swings, anxiety, and even depression.

Cognitive Effects

Cognitively, insufficient sleep can also impair memory, decision-making, and reaction time. The book “Understanding Sleep and Dreaming” mentions that sleep deprivation affects cognitive abilities, leading to slowed thinking, difficulties with memory, and even hallucinations in extreme cases, such as hearing things that aren’t there.

What Happens When You Don’t Get Enough Sleep Long-Term?

Chronic sleep deprivation is not simply a severe case of lost sleep now and then. It’s a long-term pattern of not getting enough quality sleep. This type of sleep deficiency can drastically impact your health and daily life, often more profoundly than the short-term effects of sleep deprivation.

In “The Promise of Sleep” by Dr. William C. Dement, a pioneer in sleep medicine, the author delves into the physical, emotional, and mental toll that chronic sleep deprivation can take on individuals.

Long-Term Physical Effects

Continuous lack of sleep can eventually lead to serious health problems. Chronic sleep deprivation has been linked to many physical health issues, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, and even early death. A systematic review by the medical associations noted an increased risk of high blood pressure and coronary heart disease in individuals experiencing chronic sleep deprivation.

Long-Term Psychological Effects

In terms of psychological effects, chronic sleep deprivation can lead to mental health issues like depression, anxiety, and mood disorders. The book “Sleep, Health, and Society” discusses how poor sleep can exacerbate existing mental health problems and increase the risk of developing new ones.

Long-Term Cognitive Effects

The cognitive effects of chronic sleep deprivation can be detrimental. In “Sleep Deprivation, Stimulant Medications, and Cognition,” the authors explain that sleep deprivation can result in problems with learning, concentration, memory, and cognitive speed over time.

Exploring the Science Behind Sleep Deprivation

When we sleep, we cycle through several stages, including rapid eye movement (REM) and non-REM sleep. Each cycle plays a crucial role in maintaining our mental and physical health. According to “Understanding Sleep: Neurobiology, Physiology, and Behavior,” insufficient sleep can disrupt these cycles and the restoration during each stage.

The Brain’s Response to Lack of Sleep

The brain responds negatively to a lack of sleep. Sleep deprivation affects various brain functions, including memory, mood, and the body’s ability to regulate essential functions like appetite.

Chronic Sleep Deprivation and Health Risks

Numerous studies, including those reported in the joint consensus statement of the American Heart Association and Sleep Research Society, have demonstrated a strong relationship between sleep deprivation and heart disease.

Sleep disorders and insufficient sleep are risk factors for cardiovascular diseases, including high blood pressure and coronary heart disease.

Obesity and Sleep Deprivation

People who don’t get enough sleep often gain weight and have a higher risk of becoming obese.

Diabetes and Sleep Deprivation

Sleep deprivation can also increase the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. A meta-analysis published in “Sleep Medicine Reviews” found that people who consistently get too little sleep are at a higher risk of developing diabetes due to increased insulin resistance and disrupted glucose metabolism.

Mental Health Disorders and Sleep Deprivation

Sleep deprivation has been linked to mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder.

The Impact of Sleep Deprivation on Daily Life

Sleep is short sleep deprivation doesn’t just affect our health; it also impacts our daily functioning. Lack of sleep can significantly impair performance at work or school, leading to reduced productivity and increased errors. The book “The Twenty-four Hour Mind” by Rosalind D. Cartwright suggests that poor sleep quality and sleep deprivation can lead to impaired cognitive function, contributing to poor performance and productivity.

Sleep Deprivation and Relationships

Chronic sleep deprivation can strain relationships. When you’re tired, you’re more likely to be irritable, less patient, and have a reduced ability to manage conflict effectively.

Sleep Deprivation and Safety Risks

Lack of sleep can also increase the risk of accidents. Sleep-deprived individuals, particularly those who drive, pose a substantial safety risk. According to a report by the National Sleep Foundation, drowsy driving is responsible for many car accidents each year.

How to Improve Sleep Quality and Get Enough Sleep

Maintaining good sleep hygiene is crucial for getting enough quality sleep. The book “Say Good Night to Insomnia” by Dr. Gregg D. Jacobs provides helpful insights into the practices that can improve sleep hygiene, such as establishing a regular sleep schedule, creating a sleep-friendly environment for sleeping in, and avoiding caffeine and electronic devices close to bedtime.

Lifestyle Changes for Better Sleep

In addition to improving sleep hygiene, certain lifestyle changes can promote better sleep. Regular exercise, a healthy diet, and stress management techniques like meditation can help enhance sleep quality and ensure you are getting enough shut-eye.

Seeking Professional Help

In cases of chronic serious sleep disorder, deprivation, or suspected sleep disorders, seeking help from a sleep specialist is recommended. Medical interventions, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy for insomnia and medication, can benefit those suffering from severe sleep deprivation or sleep disorders.


Getting enough quality sleep is crucial for maintaining good health and well-being. Sleep deprivation, whether acute or chronic, can significantly impact physical and mental health, daily performance, and overall quality of life.

Final Thoughts: Take Action Today for Better Sleep

Improving sleep quality and duration isn’t an overnight process, but small changes can make a big difference. If you suspect you’re not getting enough rest, don’t ignore your symptoms.

Make sleep a priority, seek help if necessary, and take steps to stay awake today for a better night’s sleep tomorrow.


  1. Walker, M. (2017). Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams.
  2. Institute of Medicine (US) Committee on Sleep Medicine and Research. (2006). Sleep Disorders and Sleep Deprivation: An Unmet Public Health Problem.
  3. National Sleep Foundation. (2015). National Sleep Foundation Recommends New Sleep Times.
  4. Hirshkowitz, M., Whiton, K., Albert, S. M., Alessi, C., Bruni, O., DonCarlos, L., … & Neubauer, D. N. (2015). National Sleep Foundation’s sleep time duration recommendations: methodology and results summary. Sleep Health, 1(1), 40-43.
  5. Colten, H. R., & Altevogt, B. M. (Eds.). (2006). Sleep disorders and sleep deprivation: An unmet public health problem. National Academies Press.