We all know how after a poor night’s sleep, tossing and turning into the early hours, we can feel slow, irritable, and grumpy the next day.
Not getting enough sleep is a widespread problem, with almost 16 million adults in the UK not getting the recommended number of hours of sleep.1
But it turns out that a lack of sleep can do more than just make you feel low and groggy – it can have some more unpleasant effects too.
Poor sleep can directly affect how we think and feel, both in the short and long term. In fact, not getting enough sleep for long periods of time can lead to an increased risk of some physical and mental health concerns.
Whether you experience bouts of insomnia or just struggle to switch off and sleep one night, understanding sleep deprivation and what it can do is important.
We’ll tell you all you need to know about sleep deprivation, its side effects, causes, and ways you can help combat your lack of sleep. Just keep reading!
In this article:
What happens if you don’t get enough sleep?
Sleep is essential for our health and well-being, so it’s only natural that when we don’t get enough of it, our health and well-being suffer.
Alongside a balanced diet and regular exercise, UK adults need between 7 and 9 hours of sleep every night to keep themselves feeling healthy.2
Not just causing you to feel groggy and grumpy in the morning, sleep deprivation can affect everything from your immune system to your cardiovascular system.
Below are 10 ways sleep deprivation can affect you.
If you find yourself waking up tired or constantly feeling tired and sleepy, chances are, you’re not getting enough sleep.
Not getting enough sleep can cause fatigue, excessive sleepiness, and a feeling of low energy all day, affecting your ability to do everyday tasks.3
Napping during the day might help, but it can sometimes leave you feeling more tired than before.
Sleep deprivation means you’ll likely feel pretty grumpy the morning after, and this is because your mood is one of the first things sleep deprivation affects!
Running on not enough sleep can lead you to feel irritable, emotional, and even short-tempered.4
What’s worse is this is likely not a mood you can just shake off; you’ll probably feel like this for most of the day.
In the long term, not getting enough sleep can make you more at risk of mental health concerns like depression and anxiety. For example, those with insomnia tend to be more at risk of developing depression than those who get a restful night’s sleep
A lack of sleep can make you more forgetful than usual because if you haven’t had enough sleep, then neither has your brain.
Whilst we sleep, our brain consolidates and preserves memories. But when we don’t get enough sleep, our brain doesn’t have enough time to process things we’ve learned recently, resulting in increased forgetfulness.6
Sleeping less can make you feel unsteady on your feet the next day.
Feeling drowsy and lightheaded after a restless night can throw off your balance and make you more susceptible to falls, accidents and even injury.
A lack of sleep affects your postural control, making it more difficult for us to control our balance and perception of space.7
Sleep and your immune system are closely connected.
When supported, your immune system helps your body ward off infection and fight illness. Consistent sleep helps to strengthen our immune system, so when you don’t get enough sleep, it can throw off your immune system and make it easier for you to get ill.
Sleep deprivation can also mean it might take you longer to recover from illnesses like a cold or the flu.8
Hypertension, or high blood pressure, has been closely linked to a lack of sleep in certain people.9
But sleep deprivation has been found to increase the risk of coronary events on the whole too.
Studies have shown there is a higher risk of cardiovascular issues in those who sleep less at night than those who get enough sleep.10
Studies have shown that getting less sleep can impact your blood sugar levels.
It is thought that a lack of sleep can increase your blood sugar levels and increase your insulin resistance (which can raise blood sugar levels too).11
Because of this, sleep deprivation has been linked to prediabetes and diabetes, which are blood sugar disorders.12
Sleep is probably not the first thing we think of when we think of weight management.
Whilst a balanced diet and exercise are important to managing your weight, so is sleep.
Research shows that whilst we sleep, our bodies produce appetite-regulating hormones that help to manage our appetite during the day.
When you sleep less, your body produces more of the appetite-increasing hormone ghrelin and less of the hormone leptin, which has the opposite effect. This means that during the day, we are more hungry and likely to eat more to feel full, which can lead to weight gain.13
If you find yourself feeling stressed out the day after a restless night’s sleep, it is because high-stress levels are a common side effect of sleep deprivation.
During a good night’s sleep, our levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, are balanced, helping us feel less stressed the day after.
But, when we don’t get enough sleep, our cortisol levels increase, leading to more feelings of stress.14
Your body needs proper rest to produce the hormones you need.
Long-term sleep deprivation has been shown to have a link with your thyroid function and the secretion of growth hormones, particularly in children and young adults.1
Symptoms of sleep deprivation
Sleep deprivation can have any signs and symptoms, the most prevalent being excessive daytime sleepiness, reduced concentration, and mood changes.
Your symptoms can vary depending on how serious your sleep deprivation is: chronic sleep deprivation can have various other symptoms – but more on this later!
Sleep deprivation symptoms include:
- Reduced attention span
- Poor memory & forgetfulness
- Slow thinking
- Making poor decisions
- Lack of energy
- Changes in your mood, like feelings of stress, anxiety & irritability16
What happens if you don’t get any sleep at all?
We’ve probably all considered pulling an all-nighter at some point in our lives, whether to revise for an exam or finish a project.
Whether you think it would be helpful to skip sleep to prepare for the next day or even just can’t sleep one night, staying up all night can have intense effects on our mood, ability to think clearly, and physical health.
We now know the effects of getting less sleep, but what are the effects of no sleep at all?
Well, a total lack of sleep can:17,18
- Reduce your attention span
- Interfere with your concentration19
- Slow your reaction time
- Impair constructive thinking
- Restrict creativity & problem-solving
- Affect your memory
- Increase your stress hormones20
- Increase stress & anxiety16
- Make you feel angry & irritable
What is chronic sleep deprivation?
Chronic sleep deprivation is when you don’t get enough sleep or experience a total lack of sleep for an extended amount of time.
It can vary in severity from person to person and can be caused by various factors.21
Primary chronic sleep deprivation can be caused by insomnia or anxiety, but secondary chronic sleep deprivation is often caused by an unrelated issue, like a medical condition.
Some of the symptoms of chronic sleep deprivation are like that of normal sleep deprivation but can include:21
- Dark circles under your eyes
- Inability to keep your eyes open
- Lacking energy for typical day-to-day tasks
- Feeling sleepy during the day
- Trouble concentrating
- Waking up not feeling refreshed
Losing sleep over a long period of time can tremendously impact your daily life, health, and well-being, with both mental and physical effects.3
So, it is really important for you to speak to a doctor if you’re experiencing a significant or complete lack of sleep for an extended period of time.
What causes sleep deprivation?
Many factors can lead to sleep deprivation, and sometimes it is as simple as staying up late to finish your favourite tv show.
But more factors can lead to a loss of sleep, including:
- Poor sleep hygiene – like having an inconsistent sleep pattern
- Work obligations – for example, working shifts, working overnight, or working long hours
- Sleep disorders – like sleep apnoea, insomnia and restless leg syndrome
- Lifestyle choices – for instance, a lack of exercise and drinking lots of caffeine
- Other medical conditions – conditions like depression and anxiety can hinder a good night’s sleep
Getting a better night’s sleep
If you’re not getting the recommended 7 to 9 hours of sleep at night and are spending your nights tossing and turning, there are lots of things you can try to encourage a restful night’s sleep.
So, if you want to fall asleep faster and stay asleep for longer, here are 7 things you can try:
Around half of the UK population is thought to go to bed feeling stressed, which can disrupt your sleeping pattern and stop you from falling asleep when you need to.22
If this sounds familiar and you struggle to stop worrying about things when trying to sleep, you could try setting aside time before bed to switch off and relax.
Whether you read a book, take a warm bath, or listen to soothing music, helping your mind switch off can help stop your head from spinning. Writing a to-do list or journaling is also a great way to get all your worries off your mind before bed.
And try not to watch the clock! Checking the time every so often when you’re trying to sleep can make you more stressed about how much sleep you’ll get.
Creating a bedtime routine allows your body to programme itself into naturally falling asleep and waking up at the same time every day. So, you’ll start to feel sleepy at the same time each day, which will signal that it is time for sleep.
Keeping up this routine even at weekends and on days off can help you fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer overnight.
And don’t forget to include an hour or so of time to switch off beforehand, so you can go to sleep with a clear mind.
Sleeping in a room that is too hot, cold, cluttered and too light can all hinder a restful night’s sleep.
Try to make your bedroom as sleep-friendly as possible by tidying away clutter, turning down the lights or investing in heavy curtains and making the room a calming temperature of between 16-18 degrees.
You could even try using relaxing scents like lavender and geranium, as these have been shown to have relaxing properties that help improve sleep quality – even if you have insomnia!23
Devices like your phone, TV and computer emit a blue light suppressing the sleep hormone, melatonin.
We know it might be easier said than done but try to avoid looking at your screens for an hour or so before you head to bed. Instead, why not pick up your favourite book or drink calming tea?
Daily activity is excellent for your health and your sleep. In fact, making sure you are active daily can help you drift off in the evening.
Just make sure you leave enough time between exercising and going to bed, as some people find exercising late in the day can actually keep them awake.
As a stimulant, caffeinated drinks can boost your energy briefly, but your body needs a full 24 hours to break down and eliminate caffeine.24
So, if you’re a fan of a caffeinated drink like coffee, try to limit yourself to consuming it only in the morning.
There are so many vitamins and supplements on the market that can help you relax and sleep. From magnesium and valerian root to vitamin C and lavender aromatherapy, there is a supplement to suit everyone.
The bottom line
We all know sleep is important, but it can sometimes be a struggle. Sleep deprivation will affect everyone at some point, whether for one night or more long-term.
There are plenty of different ways to encourage sleep, but sometimes, even that may not be enough.
If you find you are really struggling with your sleep, you should always consult a doctor for more information to find appropriate methods of sleep deprivation treatment that suit you and your needs.
The advice in this article is for information only and should not replace medical care. Please check with your GP or healthcare professional before trying any supplements, treatments or remedies. Food supplements must not be used as a substitute for a varied and balanced diet and a healthy lifestyle.
Last updated: 19 January 2023