Chronic Sleep Deprivation: Effects & Symptoms

Instructor: Amanda Robb

Amanda holds a Masters in Science from Tufts Medical School in Cellular and Molecular Physiology. She has taught high school Biology and Physics for 8 years.

In this lesson, we'll explain what sleep deprivation is in a medical context. Then, we'll review the common symptoms of sleep deprivation, which can be divided into three main categories: cognitive function and emotional and physical health.

What Is Sleep Deprivation?

You've been studying for your anatomy exam for hours. Your dorm is totally silent and most people have gone to bed, but you're still up cramming. It's been like this for weeks as finals approach. Hopefully, you can get some shut eye tonight, otherwise you might become one of the many victims of chronic sleep deprivation. Doctors describe chronic sleep deprivation as getting less than the recommended seven or eight hours of sleep for more than one or two nights. Although most people in the United States don't get enough sleep, it has some pretty serious consequences. Next, let's look at the initial symptoms that occur when you don't get enough sleep.


Work is driving you crazy. You feel like all you do is work. You've only been getting about six hours of sleep each night and every morning feels worse than the last. You're in a bad mood and it's hard to keep your eyes open during afternoon meetings. You even caught yourself dozing off behind the wheel on the way home last night.

A sign on the highway in Utah urges drivers to pull over if they experience sleep deprivation symptoms
driving sign

Not only that, but you feel like you're getting sick. You're run down and constantly tired. On the weekends though, you try to catch up on all your sleep, sometimes sleeping 13 hours a night. You feel excessively hungry too. Sugar and fat are all you want to eat.

If this description fits your life, you're in a state of chronic sleep deprivation. The early symptoms include tiredness, hunger, depressed mood, exhaustion and increased susceptibility to illness. Another sure sign is sleeping far more than the recommended eight hours when you don't have to get up in the morning.

Effects of Sleep Deprivation

Although the tiredness and moodiness we're all familiar with are symptoms of sleep deprivation, there are other more serious effects that occur in the body as a biological response to lack of sleep. Some occur immediately after a poor night's sleep, but others continue, even after the sleep debt, or how many hours of sleep you've been missing, has been made up.

Cognitive Function

It's no secret that not getting enough sleep can make you feel foggy and less alert. Many studies have shown that sleep deprivation impairs short term memory, alertness, vigilance and decision-making. Scientists have studied the sleep deprived brain using a scan called an fMRI. They noticed that areas of the brain involved in these important cognitive tasks get less blood flow than normal. Without blood flow, the brain doesn't get enough oxygen and your brain cells won't be able to work as well.

The prefrontal cortex (highlighted in green) is in charge of decision making and is affected by sleep deprivation
prefrontal cortex

Emotional Health

If you've ever had a late night, you've probably noticed how everything seems to bother you when you're tired. Even little things, like dropping your groceries, can seem catastrophic. As it turns out, there's some science to back up this observation, it's not just you! Scientists have found that changes in the area of the brain that regulates emotion, called the amygdala, cause these uncontrollable feelings. The amygdala doesn't talk to the other areas of the brain that tell it to chill out when something bad happens, so it becomes unregulated, and so do your emotions. Other, long term emotional problems present with chronic sleep deprivation. People not only develop a short fuse, but can experience severe depression and anxiety.

Sleep deprivation can lead to long-term mental health problems
mental health

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