The average American does not get an adequate amount of sleep every night. In a society of shift workers falling into the habit of sleeping less can have some pretty bad repercussions if it continues for long. Are you sleep deprived? What are the consequences of not getting enough sleep? Find out by reading the rest of this article. The information listed below is taken from the research of Ronald Dahl, director of the Adolescent Sleep Evaluation Center at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

Daytime Sleepiness

Of course, the most obvious symptom of not enough sleep is being sleepy during the day. When this pattern continues for several days, it is possible to fall asleep involuntarily - microsleep. You will nod off for short periods of time and may do this a few times per day. In normal circumstances skipping sleep for a day or so is sometimes necessary to meet work deadlines or family obligations. As long as the person makes up this lack of sleep there is no worry. But there are circumstances where lack of sleep can pose a danger to the person and others around him or her.

Besides being sleepy, when you’re tired your reaction times are delayed, so it is a bad time to be driving or working with machinery. Students getting a driver’s license need to be alert and focus when driving. Lack of sleep, coupled with inexperience, is a recipe for disaster. The most common cause of car crashes is distracted or drowsy driving and young drivers under the age of 25 are frequently involved.

Driving Abilities

According to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimated 100,000 car crashes reported were attributed to drowsy drivers of 15 to 24 years of age. Drowsy driving is in the same category as distracted driving.  The person whose head nods for a second while on the freeway is in danger just as much as the person who texts and drives or is otherwise distracted from watching the road.

Most car crashes of this type are more likely to occur in the late evening and typically involve men more than women. In fall-asleep crashes there is no attempt to turn the wheels or apply the brakes to avoid collision because the driver’s reaction time is slower. By the time the driver realizes what is happening it is too late to stop it.


Every night of sleep you lose creates a deficit that must be repaid or balanced.  Loss of sleep builds up and the effects get worse as time goes on. Poor performance is evident in people who sleep 6 hours per night. At 4 hours the lapse is even greater. While some people believe that people can adjust to sleeping fewer hours, the results of testing this hypothesis contradict it. Even if a person gets used to less sleep it doesn’t mean that they will function without impairment.

A Multiple Sleep Latency Test performed by Dinges monitored a group of young adults between the ages of 20 and 30 in a lab for 5 days. They were closely monitored to make sure that they would not nap or microsleep. The results of this test closely resemble the results of his previous study. The tests were performed 16 years apart but had a similar conclusion. Sleep deprivation affects cognitive performance.

Some subjects were tested for longer periods - up to 14 days. Some slept 8 hours, some 6 hours, and some only 4 hours. Those who slept 8 hours per night showed no sleep deficit. Those who slept 6 hours per night began showing impairment by the 5th day to the equivalent of one sleepless night.   The impairment in those sleeping 4 hours was seen by the 3rd day and with the equivalent of two sleepless nights. These parameters continued to decrease as the test went on. The longer the test went on, the more obvious the effects of debilitation became.

The effects on learning were very similar.  Subjects who slept 8 hours per night had great results. The learning abilities of those who slept 6 hours a night decreased, and at 4 hours a night the ability to learn was greatly impacted by the sleep deficit. Dinges noted that the ability to absorb, retain, and recall information was altered by sleep loss.

Young adults not accustomed to handling high amounts of stress may not be able to recognize when they are impaired. While they may think that they can function just fine without much sleep, the test results contradict this theory. People tested on a computer were required to watch the screen and give a response at 30-second intervals. Those who slept 8 hours per night had the fewest lapses. Those with the highest number of lapses slept 4 hours per night. There was an alarm that would sound every time a person missed a response.

Experimental Data

Dahl performed studies with 10 adolescents who were kept up all night and then asked to perform memory tests matching letters they had seen. The study aimed to find out how sleep deprivation affects mood, behavior, and cognitive function. In a very controlled environment Dahl compared the results with data collected prior to the adolescents being kept awake. Even adults who function on very little sleep have difficulty with cognitive function, let alone children who are entering puberty and have even less emotional control in the classroom and at home.

However, the results of the study concluded that sleep deprivation had little impact when performing simple memory tasks. Both groups (those who slept and those who didn’t) performed about the same. 

The researcher then added emotional background to the letters in the series of images. The images ranged from positive through negative to neutral emotions (as they were intended to evoke an emotional response). The neutral images invoked no response as they were of buildings and ordinary objects. 

But Dahl noticed that when he added the pictures tied to emotions, the effects of sleep deprivation were obvious. Each by themselves had little impact, but the two combined produced a huge drop in performance. Adding the emotional aspect brought out inability to control emotions and regulate behavior that teenagers must deal with on a daily basis as they hit puberty.

Attention and Focus

David Dinges, professor and chief of the Division of Sleep and Chronobiology at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, noted a decrease in attention and the ability to stay awake in studies performed at his laboratory.

His research concluded that the sleep deprived subjects started a task feeling fine. As time progressed they began to nod off, and the time they could stay focused decreased from 45 minutes to 3 – 5 minutes. During a 45-minute lecture they would only be able to stay alert for roughly 5 minutes before their head started to bob. Involuntary microsleeps occurred as wakefulness waned. The subjects’ reaction time got longer. While this is not too much of an issue in the classroom, a 1-second lapse when driving a car at 60 miles per hour can mean that it will take longer to hit the brakes. Just like missing a stop sign because of the driver’s lapse in attention can put all passengers at risk of injury or death.

Emotional Response

Adolescence is a volatile time. Adolescents are dealing with new demands at school and home, the onset of puberty brings hormonal changes and emotional turmoil, and lack of sleep compounds everything. Teenagers display more emotional and behavioral problems in reaction to new feelings that they have no experience in dealing with. For some people puberty comes early, which makes growing up even more difficult. The human body produces cortisol in response to stress. A study measured the cortisol levels of teens with depressive disorders. A reading was taken every 20 minutes during a 24-hour period. The results showed that the teens produced cortisol before going to sleep and even after falling asleep.


When it comes to attention, students have no problem focusing on action-filled video games or movies. Even those who are tired have no trouble doing something that is compelling or exciting. However, with tasks that are boring or repetitive it is easy to lose focus and even nod off for a few seconds at a time, which is known as lapses in attention. This is often the case when college students who spend too much time at parties attempt to study for exams at the last minute. They find it hard to maintain focus and falling asleep is a real possibility.

While sleeping through an exam is bad, it is not life threatening. Nodding off while driving a car going 60 miles per hour or more often is. The consequences of inadequate sleep are not being able to stay awake when it is important to do so. When (especially a young) person is sleep deprived, they may not be able to recognize that their judgement and actions are impaired. 

Besides falling asleep at odd times, not sleeping enough at night can affect your thinking processes and mood. People who are tired are cranky and irritable, quick to get angry, and have low tolerance. This applies to adults, teenagers, and younger children. Our thinking processes are located in the front part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex. This area is a complex region of nerves and impulses and takes the longest to develop, sometimes until the age of 20 years. This part of the brain is also the most sensitive to lack of sleep, according to Professor Dahl.


Caffeine is relatively easy to get for many adolescents. Soda, bottled coffee drinks, and energy drinks contain high amounts of caffeine. Teenagers consume more caffeine now than ever in the past. It helps many students wake up, keeps them going when they run out of energy, and helps them stay awake when cramming for tests. In essence they are substituting adequate sleep for caffeine. 

Caffeine is a psychostimulant and can have different effects on a young person’s development. A high number of students with neurological and behavioral disorders use caffeine when their Adderall wears off before the end of the day. It can help bridge the gap at the end of the day to get them through that last class.

The problems come when they drink large amounts of caffeine and forego sleep. Caffeine and other stimulants override the body’s circadian rhythm that tells us when it’s time to sleep. Delaying sleep by using caffeine can contribute to long-term insomnia.

The Social Context

The social aspect of this problem is that teens who hit puberty early have even more pressure on them from outer influences as well as internal processes. The prefrontal cortex controls the portion of the brain governing critical thinking, impulses, and reasoning. At this time in their lives they are in-between, growing up, but not grown up enough to handle most adult problems. At a time when they should be given greater freedom and increased responsibilities many are not capable of handling these demands. There is also the opportunity to experiment with alcohol due to newfound freedoms. Any of these factors combined with alcohol and sleep deficits are a bad situation about to get worse.

Sleep Deprivation and Younger Children

Sleep problems affect younger children as well, especially those with neurological disorders. 40% of school-aged children have sleep problems. 13% of teenagers have trouble falling or staying asleep. Young children require more sleep than teens, 12 hours on average. The younger you are, the more sleep your body needs to develop. Poor young sleepers tend to have more issues with depression and other mood disorders. Kids with disorders like ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) have trouble falling asleep, sleeping through the night, and tend to wake up too early. They get very little sleep and it is easy to see now why they tend to be more irritable and aggressive with peers, and often have low self-esteem.

Children who go to bed earlier and get more sleep do better at school and get higher grades. Those with As and Bs go to bed 40 minutes earlier than those who earn Cs and Ds. So learning is affected by sleep loss too. It affects the prefrontal cortex of the brain where learning, memory, and critical thinking processes are. 

Research shows that a minimum of 8 hours per night is needed for healthy sleep.  Anything less than that and you are creating a sleep deficit that could pile up creating serious issues if you are not careful. 

Do you think you might be sleep deprived? It is possible if any of these signs sound familiar to you. Napping during the day, falling asleep minutes after lying down, and needing an alarm clock to wake you up in the morning are all signs that you are not getting enough sleep. 

Categories: About Sleep