Causes of Sleep Deprivation

Sleep deprivation can hit any person at any time in their life, but it’s more common in certain groups of people or as the result of specific behaviours. Find out more about what causes sleep deprivation and how to know if you are sleep deprived.

How do I know if I'm experiencing sleep deprivation?

If you’re experiencing any of the below, you’re probably not getting the sleep you need:

  • Mood swings, anxiety, and irritation: Lack of sleep causes changes in mood. You may not notice yourself, but perhaps family members, colleagues, or friends have pointed out your behaviour.

  • Tossing and turning, cycling thoughts, and other sleep disruptions: Noticing your sleep patterns changing or that you’re struggling to fall or stay asleep is the first indication you’re experiencing sleep deprivation.

  • Bad memory: You forget to pick up the kids and walk into a room and can’t remember what you went there for. Sleep is vital for forming connections in the brain – without those connections, your short- and long-term memory will suffer.

  • Poor concentration: You struggle to focus on your work and find yourself drifting off during meetings.

  • Weight gain: Poor sleep can increase your appetite, leading to late night snacking or eating more during the day.

  • Low sex drive: You may notice a decrease in your libido. In men, this can be the result of lower testosterone production, which also has other health effects.

  • Poor balance: A lack of sleep can impact your balance and coordination. You may notice yourself tripping or having accidents more often.

For more details about symptoms and causes, see this article on sleep deprivation.

What does sleep deprivation do to my body?

According to Healthwise, there are 11 key effects of sleep deprivation on your body. You may not realise it, but you could be experiencing:

  • Increased vulnerability to colds, flu, and other respiratory illness.

  • Overeating from an increase in appetite.

  • An increased risk of type 2 diabetes from excessive insulin production.

  • Increased risk of heart disease, stroke, and heart attacks.

  • Problems with hormone production.

Key causes of sleep deprivation

There are many reasons you might be experiencing sleep deprivation. Here are some of the most common causes.

  • Shift work/travel/irregular schedule: People who work shift or travel a lot for work end up fitting in sleep at different times during the day. This means your circadian rhythms are out-of-whack and any sleep you do get won’t feel rested.

  • Eating too late: If you eat too close to bedtime, you can give yourself indigestion and acid reflux that can impede your ability to fall asleep.

  • Screen time: Using a phone or computer in bed exposes you to a blue screen light. This has been shown to send signals to your brain that you want to stay awake, so it reduces the production of melatonin.

  • Obligations: You may be staying up late or waking during the night to care for a newborn baby or elderly parent.

  • Medical problems: If you’re experiencing a medical condition or taking medication, your sleep deprivation may be a symptom or side effect of this.

  • Voluntary behaviours: You may be staying up late studying for exams, playing computer games, or doing other things when you should be sleeping.

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The people who are most at risk of experiencing sleep deprivation are shift workers, parents, and caregivers, adolescents, people with medical conditions, and anyone experiencing a sleep disorder like sleep apnea or restless leg syndrome. However, sleep deprivation can affect anyone at any time in their life. See this factsheet for more information about the causes of sleep deprivation.

Once you understand that you’re sleep deprived, and have an inkling about what’s causing it, you can take steps to change your routine and behaviour to create a better night’s sleep.