Causes of Sleep Deprivation

Tired Woman

Sleep deprivation has become a significant health problem in the United States. Over time, not getting enough sleep can lead to illnesses or an increased risk of injury. Knowing why it's happening can help you to overcome this serious problem.

Physical Causes

In some cases, managing the physical condition may improve the sleep deprivation. Other situations like pregnancy may require modifying one's lifestyle to improve sleep.

Medical Conditions

Some physical conditions can lead to sleep deprivation. Some examples include:

  • Asthma: Asthma can cause nighttime coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath which can interfere with sleep.
  • Chronic pain: Conditions that cause chronic pain like back issues, arthritis, or fibromyalgia can make it difficult to sleep at night. Also, pain gets worse when you don't sleep so it can become a vicious cycle.
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disorder (GERD): For people with GERD, acid may creep into the esophagus once they lay down at night; this can lead to heartburn and pain which can make it impossible to sleep.

Hormone Fluctuations

Women may suffer from sleep deprivation at different times in life due to hormone fluctuations. Premenstrual syndrome, pregnancy, and menopause can all cause sleep deprivation.

Clinical Sleep Disorders

Sleep disorders can interfere with normal sleep rhythms and the quality of sleep that you do get.

  • Insomnia: In insomnia, you are unable to get enough sleep. There may be problems in falling asleep or staying asleep which can be caused by a variety of environmental, physical, or psychological issues.
  • Sleep apnea: In sleep apnea, you stop breathing periodically throughout the night. Because of this, you wake up over and over again throughout the night, although you may not realize it. This causes insufficient and ineffective sleep and sleep deprivation; this condition also can lead to significant health problems on its own if not treated.
  • Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS): RLS, a disorder in which the person feels the need to move the legs, typically interferes with sleep and can lead to sleep deprivation.

Medication Causes

Not only can medical conditions lead to sleep deprivation, but so can some of the medications you take.

Prescription Medications

While medications are often beneficial for the conditions they are prescribed to manage, some may also cause insomnia, tiredness and the inability to fall asleep. Some medications that might interfere with sleep include:

  • Steroids
  • Beta-blockers
  • Opioids
  • Allergy medications
  • Long term use of sleeping pills

Non-Prescription Supplements

Over the counter (OTC) supplements can also have an impact of sleep as well.

  • OTC decongestants
  • Weight loss supplements
  • Ginseng
  • Guarana
  • Vitamins like B6 or B12

Don't stop taking a prescription medication without talking to your doctor first. Doctors may offer other medicine options, or may alter the dosage to stop the sleep deprivation in affected people. If you are having sleep problems, make sure to tell your doctor about all of the medications that you are taking including over the counter or herbal supplements.

Lifestyle Causes

Other causes of sleep deprivation can include the lifestyle that you lead or your environment and surroundings.


  • Alcohol: Drinking alcohol close to bedtime can interfere with sleep -- it can make it easier to fall asleep but more difficult to stay that way.
  • Poor diet: Eating a diet high in fat can make it difficult to fall asleep.
  • Caffeine: Caffeine is a stimulant and can make it difficult to sleep.
  • Shift work: Working late or rotating shifts confuses your internal clock and messes with your sleep.
  • Jet lag: Traveling across time zones can also confuse your internal clock as well. Regular trips across time zones can lead to sleep deprivation.


  • Noise or light in the sleeping environment
  • Too hot or cold environment
  • Bed partner issues

Psychological Causes

Psychological issues can disrupt your sleep cycle and lead to sleep deprivation.


Stress -- be it about work, health, or life -- can make it difficult to fall asleep at night. Stressful events like a divorce, a move, death of a loved one, or traumatic event can also keep you awake at night.


Anxiety surrounding everyday activities can cause sleep deprivation. Patients with anxiety disorders like generalized anxiety, PTSD, or panic disorder may also have issues with sleep.


Depression may cause sleep problems through an inability to relax and fall asleep or because of chemical imbalances in the brain associated with the condition. Most patients with depression have insomnia as well.

Other Mental Disorders

Patients with bipolar disorder can experience sleep problems during a manic episode and may find themselves either sleeping significantly more or not much at all during the depressive phase of the condition. People with ADHD may have difficulties falling asleep, restless sleep, and shorter sleep periods.

While many conditions may cause sleep problems and lead to deprivation, the lack of sleep can also make the specific problem -- for example depression -- worse as well.

When to Get Help

Those unsure of what is behind their sleep deprivation should keep a sleep journal. Record what you ate, what you did and what happened when you tried to go to sleep each day. Over a period of weeks or a month, patterns develop showing you what could be behind your sleep deprivation.

The causes of sleep deprivation often dictate when you should seek help. If you believe medication or medical condition is the underlying problem, immediate help is necessary. Those whose lifestyle is the cause should make changes to that lifestyle as much as possible to insure the body has the ability to sleep as it needs to.

Those who have extreme symptoms should seek medical attention as soon as possible. For example:

  • You suffer from insomnia for three or more nights per week for several weeks
  • You snore loudly, choke, or stop breathing while lying down or trying to sleep
  • You wake after seeming to sleep a full night and are exhausted on a regular basis
  • Your lack of sleep impairs you keeping you from handling daily activities
  • You are experiencing other medical symptoms including chest pain or the inability to catch your breath

By some reports, sleep problems affect 60 percent of adults around the world at some point in their lifetimes. In most cases, you are able to overcome the problem prior to it becoming a health risk. Seeking medical guidance as soon as you start having these conditions will minimize the damage done to your body as a result of sleep deprivation.

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Causes of Sleep Deprivation