Understanding How Sleep Deprivation Affects Your Well-Being

Written by: Tony Schwartz



Time to read 6 min

Sleep, an essential, complex, and dynamic physiological process, is crucial for the physical, cognitive, and emotional well-being of all of us. The importance of sleep cannot be overstated, as it plays a pivotal role in brain plasticity, memory consolidation, and the regulation of a myriad of bodily functions that help us live our daily lives. The modern lifestyle and societal demands have led to widespread sleep deprivation, a condition characterized by insufficient sleep duration and quality. The Center for Disease Control estimates that 1 in 3 adults don’t get enough sleep. Millions of us are suffering from sleep deprivation and the effects can have drastic impacts on our health, well-being, mood, and quality of life. This post aims to explore the effects of sleep deprivation on human physiology, delving into the myriad ways in which lack of sleep can impact bodily functions, health, and overall well-being.

The Physiology of Sleep

The 4 stages of sleep, infographic on sleep.

Sleep is regulated by the interplay between the circadian rhythm and homeostatic sleep drive. The circadian rhythm, controlled by the suprachiasmatic nucleus in the hypothalamus, regulates the timing of sleep based on external cues such as light (Czeisler et al., 1999). One of the ways to jump start your circadian rhythm each morning is by greeting the sun as soon as you awake. With light playing a significant factor in things like REM sleep , getting early morning sunlight is a very effective way to indicate that you’re beginning your day with other ways to indicate that you’re getting ready for bed. Some of the ways to indicate that you’re getting ready to enter into a sleep state is by turning off electronics, eliminating as much blue light as possible, and laying down in your bed at a similar time each night.

The homeostatic sleep drive, on the other hand, denotes the body's need for sleep, which accumulates with time awake and dissipates during sleep (Borbély, 1982). In other words, there is a physiological need for sleep which can only be appeased by the actual act of sleeping itself. No other activity, at least that we’re aware of, can replicate the effects of a quality night’s sleep.

To summarize, sleep plays a vital role in making sure we can carry out our daily lives, but sometimes we don’t get enough of it. Life gets busy, demands around us grow, and the pressure to deliver immediate results has never been more prominent than in 2024. Sleep deprivation can have drastic effects on the body and it is important to mitigate against sleep deprivation as much as possible. Let’s dive into the specifics of sleep deprivation, how it is defined, causes, and some of the effects on the body.

Defining Sleep Deprivation

Sleep deprivation occurs when an individual fails to obtain the required amount of sleep. It can be acute (short-term) or chronic (long-term), and it can result from voluntary behavior, lifestyle choices, job requirements, or medical conditions (Alhola & Polo-Kantola, 2007).

For those who have a consistent sleep routine and schedule, they are less likely to be affected by sleep deprivation. Think about it as an analogy such as muscle memory. The more we train our bodies to wake up and fall asleep at the same time and under similar circumstances, the better we will be at attaining that goal. Practice and repetition help the muscle grow. Unfortunately, stress, anxiety, life’s circumstances, and other environmental factors can reduce our sleep duration and quality.

If you are 18+ years old then you should be getting between 7-9 hours of sleep per night. If you get less than 7 hours of sleep per night then you are considered sleep deprived. If you consistently get less than 7 hours of sleep per night then the effects of sleep deprivation can have a greater cumulative effect on you. Put another way, if your sleep deprivation persists for longer it can have more drastic effects on your health and well-being.

Prevalence and Causes of Sleep Deprivation

The prevalence of sleep deprivation has been increasing, with factors such as longer working hours, increased screen time, and societal pressures contributing significantly to this trend (Hafner et al., 2017). A variety of societal shifts, such as a higher prominence of remote working habits have led to some degradation of sleep quality. One hypothesis is that, because there is no separation or distinction between work and home, that people are working more non-traditional hours and available to superiors at odd hours of the day as compared to a 9a-5p schedule. These extra demands during parts of our day that were formerly non-working hours are prohibitive to rest and relaxation now. But even if you are working traditional hours, Americans are more stressed than ever before and that plays a role in sleep quality.

Effects of Sleep Deprivation on Human Physiology

Cognitive Function and Brain Plasticity

  • Sleep deprivation adversely affects cognitive processes such as attention, alertness, concentration, reasoning, and problem-solving. It also hampers the brain's ability to form new memories and can lead to decreased performance and increased accidents (Kilgore, 2010).

Emotional and Mental Health

  • Lack of sleep is linked to emotional disturbances, increased stress responses, and greater vulnerability to psychiatric disorders. Chronic sleep deprivation has been associated with depression, anxiety, and mood swings (Walker, 2008).

Cardiovascular Effects

Sleep deprivation can lead to significant cardiovascular issues. It has been linked to hypertension, increased heart rate, and inflammation, contributing to a higher risk of heart disease and stroke (Meier-Ewert et al., 2004).

Metabolic and Endocrine Effects

Sleep plays a crucial role in metabolic and endocrine functions. Insufficient sleep can lead to metabolic dysregulation, contributing to weight gain, diabetes, and a host of metabolic syndromes. It affects the regulation of key hormones like insulin, cortisol, leptin, and ghrelin (Spiegel et al., 2004).

Immune Function

Sleep is essential for the proper functioning of the immune system. Sleep deprivation can lead to a decrease in immune function, making the body more susceptible to infections and illnesses (Besedovsky et al., 2012).

Impact on Life Quality and Longevity

Quality of Life: Sleep deprivation can severely impact the overall quality of life, leading to decreased productivity, increased risk of accidents, and strained relationships (Strine & Chapman, 2005).

Longevity: Chronic sleep deprivation has been linked to a shortened lifespan. The mechanisms are multifactorial, involving impacts on cardiovascular health, immune function, and metabolic processes (Gallicchio & Kalesan, 2009).

In Conclusion

It is extremely likely that either you or someone you know is suffering from sleep deprivation. 1 in 3 adults don’t get enough sleep in the United States, and as demands around us all keep piling up, it’s unlikely that Americans will overcome this health crisis any time soon. However, with as much research pointing to the crucial importance of sleep, there is no greater investment in our health than our sleep habits. So we must commit to overcoming sleep deprivation by practicing healthy sleep habits. Go to bed at the same time every night, wake up at the same time every morning, and maintain at least 30 minutes of physical activity per day. The risks of chronic sleep deprivation are too great to ignore, and so Slumber encourages everyone to invest in your well-being by getting enough sleep every night.


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Hafner, M., Stepanek, M., Taylor, J., Troxel, W.M., & van Stolk, C. (2017). Why sleep matters — the economic costs of insufficient sleep: A cross-country comparative analysis. RAND Corporation.

Kilgore, W.D. (2010). Effects of sleep deprivation on cognition. Progress in Brain Research, 185, 105–129.

Meier-Ewert, H.K., Ridker, P.M., Rifai, N., Regan, M.M., Price, N.J., Dinges, D.F., & Mullington, J.M. (2004). Effect of sleep loss on C-reactive protein, an inflammatory marker of cardiovascular risk. Journal of the American College of Cardiology, 43(4), 678–683.

Spiegel, K., Tasali, E., Penev, P., & Van Cauter, E. (2004). Brief communication: Sleep curtailment in healthy young men is associated with decreased leptin levels, elevated ghrelin levels, and increased hunger and appetite. Annals of Internal Medicine, 141(11), 846–850.

Walker, M.P. (2008). Cognitive consequences of sleep and sleep loss. Sleep Medicine, 9(Supplement 1), S29–S34.

Tony Schwartz