Sleep deprivation symptoms

Image of Dr Simon Kyle
By Dr Simon Kyle

Research tells us that sleep deprived people find it more difficult to perform to their full potential during the day. You may well be familiar with the feeling of gritty eyes in the morning, but there are many other symptoms of a lack of sleep, which you may not be aware of.

Humans have a natural sleep drive which builds throughout the day whilst we remain awake. This grows into the evening until we eventually feel an overwhelming 'pressure' to sleep. Sleep pressure is then relieved as we sleep, until we wake up and the process starts once again.

Insufficient sleep, however, has been found to exacerbate the symptoms of several sleep disorders. Sleep paralysis and sleepwalking, for example, are more likely to occur after several nights of poor sleep or irregular sleep-wake schedules.

Symptoms of sleep deprivation

Lack of sleep symptoms tend to vary according to how long and how often we are sleep deprived within a certain period of time. In general though, it is fair to say that sleep deprivation affects us on physical, mental and emotional levels.

Experimental studies with healthy good sleepers, where total sleep time is restricted, indicate that lack of sleep (or certain stages of sleep), negatively impacts a huge range of functions, including emotional processing, pain thresholds, immune functioning and glucose metabolism.

Physical symptoms

Physically, lack of sleep may leave us struggling with low energy levels during the day. Findings from the Great British Sleep Survey show that poor sleepers are twice as likely to feel fatigued. In fact, 88% of poor sleepers struggled with reduced energy compared to only 29% of 'good' sleepers.

Sleepiness, as opposed to 'tiredness', is another physical symptom, demonstrated by our propensity to fall asleep or trouble to stay awake during the day.

Although not terribly common, lightheadedness can also be a consequence of sleep deprivation. Often, headaches and tension are found to increase after poor sleep; occasionally this may be accompanied by feelings of dizziness and light-headedness. It is recommended that you consult your doctor if you experience symptoms such as this.

Mental symptoms

Mentally, poor sleep may result in poorer concentration and memory. In research studies, sleep deprived people have shown impairments in both sustained attention and memory performance.

Of those who participated in our survey of the nation's sleep, poor sleepers were 62% more likely to report struggling to concentrate or 'think clearly'.

Emotional symptoms

Emotionally, we may find ourselves more irritable and lower in mood, as a result of poor or insufficient sleep. Research has consistently found that sleep deprived people show less stable patterns of behavior and are more likely to be emotionally labile. Indeed, the Great British Sleep Survey revealed those suffering from insufficient sleep were twice as likely to suffer from low mood as those who sleep well.

Whilst only restorative sleep can relieve signs of sleep deprivation, some people may have trouble inducing or maintaining sleep. Given how much our quality of sleep affects us the next day, it is important to seek treatment for any sleep problem that you are experiencing.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has been shown to be highly effective in helping people establish a regular sleep schedule. Further to this, the clinical trial of the Sleepio program found participants' mood, alongside their sleep, to have improved at two months post-treatment.

Participants also saw their energy and daytime well-being more than double compared to levels prior to embarking on the Sleepio course.


Durmer, J.S., Dinges, D.F. (2005). Neurocognitive consequences of sleep deprivation. Seminars in Neurology, 25(1), 117-129.

Filed under: Sleep science