5 Stages of Sleep Deprivation and How They Affect Your Body

If you’ve missed out on a whole night of sleep, you’ll experience some degree of sleep deprivation. Sleep deprivation occurs in stages that are based on how much sleep has been missed. Because sleep is essential to overall health, sleep deprivation has its consequences. People experience sleep deprivation for many reasons and it causes symptoms that vary in severity.

Key takeaways:
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    Sleep deprivation happens when you get less than the recommended amount of sleep.
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    Sleep recommendations vary by age but generally, 7 to 9 hours of sleep is recommended for adults.
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    5 stages of sleep deprivation are based on the amount of sleep that has been lost.
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    Symptoms of sleep deprivation become more severe as the stages progress.
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    Treating sleep deprivation can be as simple as catching up on your sleep but may require medical treatment if an underlying illness is present.

What is sleep deprivation?

Sleep deprivation occurs when a person does not get an adequate amount of sleep. This could mean going a full day (or days) without sleep or sleeping less than the recommended amount overnight.

Sleep deprivation can be an acute or chronic issue:

  • Acute sleep deprivation. It occurs over the course of a day or two.
  • Chronic sleep deprivation. It is an ongoing, long-term issue, characterized by a person missing out on adequate sleep for weeks or months at a time.

What causes sleep deprivation?

There are many different reasons why you may experience sleep deprivation. Typically, sleep deprivation is caused by lifestyle factors that are not majorly concerning. In some less common circumstances, sleep deprivation can be caused by underlying health conditions or mental health issues.

Common life circumstances that might cause sleep deprivation include:

  • Working overnight or long hours;
  • Consuming stimulants and/or alcohol;
  • Poor sleep habits;
  • Caring for a baby overnight;
  • Poorly managed stress.

Sometimes sleep deprivation is related to an underlying health condition such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease. It may also be caused by certain mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and PTSD.

How much sleep do you need?

The recommended amount of sleep varies based on age. Some guidelines are presented below.

Age groupRecommended hours of sleep
Newborns14–17 hours per night
Infants (4 months to 1 year old)12–16 hours
Young children (1 to 5 years old)10–14 hours
School-aged children (6 to 12 years old)9–12 hours
Teenagers (13 to 18 years old)8–10 hours
Adults (18 years and up)7–9 hours

Symptoms when you are sleep deprived

Sleep deprivation can cause a variety of different symptoms which vary depending on your age, overall health, and how severely sleep deprived you are.

Some general symptoms of sleep deprivation include:

  • Tiredness during the day;
  • Irritable mood;
  • Difficulty focusing;
  • Headaches;
  • Delayed reaction times.

Sleep deprivation can be further categorized into stages which are based on the hours gone without sleep. As sleep deprivation worsens, symptoms change and become more severe.

Severe sleep deprivation may take form in any of the following symptoms:

  • Microsleeps or briefly falling asleep for seconds at a time;
  • Nystagmus or uncontrollable eye movement;
  • Shaky hands;
  • Poor judgment;
  • Impulsive behavior;
  • Visual and auditory hallucinations;
  • Psychosis (in very severe cases).

What are the stages of sleep deprivation: timeline

Sleep deprivation sometimes occurs when a person is simply not getting enough sleep. Other times, it involves a total lack of sleep, also referred to as total sleep deprivation. Total sleep deprivation can be categorized into five stages, based on the amount of sleep that has been lost.

Stage 1. 24 hours without sleep

Going a full 24 hours without sleep will likely feel difficult to most but it won’t have serious health consequences and can be recovered from quickly. The main risk associated with this stage of sleep deprivation is an increased risk of accidents due to tiredness.

Stage 2. 36 hours without sleep

Stage 2 of sleep deprivation occurs when a person has gone 36 hours without sleep. At this stage, you may experience something called “microsleeps”, or involuntarily falling asleep for a few seconds at a time. Symptoms of sleep deprivation that are associated with this stage include:

  • Impaired memory;
  • Difficulty learning new information;
  • Behavioral changes;
  • Difficulty communicating.

Stage 3. 48 hours without sleep

Stage 3 is also known as extreme sleep deprivation and occurs once a person has gone 48 hours without sleep. In this stage, you may experience hallucinations and/or a sense of depersonalization.

Stage 4. 72 hours without sleep

By stage 4 of sleep deprivation a person has gone three days without sleep. This will cause an increased urge to sleep and more frequent instances of microsleep. You may experience more intense hallucinations and disordered thinking.

Stage 5. 96+ hours without sleep

In stage 5 of sleep deprivation, you may become unable to interpret reality. This is also referred to as sleep deprivation psychosis.

Can I pay back my sleep debt?

When you don’t sleep enough for multiple days at a time, you will build up something called “sleep debt”. For example, if you need to get 8 hours of sleep and you only sleep for 5, you’ll have a sleep debt of 3 hours. If the following day, you only sleep for 6 hours, you’ll now have a collective sleep debt of 5 hours.

Sleep debt is complicated in that you don’t necessarily have to “pay it back” hour for hour. You don’t need to make up for the exact amount of sleep you lost but you can begin to feel rested again after getting a few nights of good, replenishing sleep.

Which stages of sleep are most impacted by sleep deprivation?

The sleep cycle involves four total stages. Your brain cycles through these stages as you sleep. If you are not sleeping at all, then all stages of sleep will be impacted. If you are only experiencing poor quality sleep or non-restorative sleep, then it may only be the deeper stages of sleep that are being affected. Stage 3 is the most replenishing stage of sleep, during which you are in the “deepest” stage of sleep.

How to treat sleep deprivation

In most cases, recovering from the effects of sleep deprivation is just a matter of getting an adequate amount of rest. If there is an underlying health condition causing sleep interference then treating the underlying condition will improve sleep. You can try any of the steps discussed below to help improve sleep quality.

1. Stick to a regular schedule

Practicing a consistent sleep schedule ensures that you get enough sleep. If you’re experiencing sleep deprivation, it is generally recommended that you make up for sleep by going to bed earlier, rather than sleeping in later.

2. Physical activity

Exercising during the day can help to tire out your body so that you’re ready to fall asleep at night. It is recommended to work out 5 to 6 hours before bedtime so that your body has time to relax before it is time to go to sleep.

3. Seek out therapy

Sleep deprivation is sometimes caused by mental health issues like anxiety. Visiting a licensed therapist can help you discuss any intrusive thoughts or stressors that may be getting in the way of your sleep.

4. Avoid caffeine and alcohol

Both caffeine and alcohol can interfere with sleep quality. If you have to drink caffeine during the day, do it early in the day and only enjoy moderate amounts. It’s often thought that alcohol promotes tiredness but it disrupts sleep quality so moderating alcohol or staying away from it is ideal.

5. Get enough sunlight throughout the day

Getting enough natural sunlight throughout the day helps to regulate melatonin levels. Experts recommend 10-30 minutes of sunlight daily.

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