Sleep Deprivation Stages: What Are They And How Can You Avoid Them?

Many people across the world are not getting good quality sleep. Late nights, excessive use of digital devices and nightly Netflix binges are creating a society that is used to dealing with an overstimulated brain. Yet, a brain that’s in overdrive isn’t the right recipe for a good night of sleep. 

Lack of sleep, also known as sleep deprivation, is a huge epidemic among many Canadian adults and teenagers at the moment. To understand how to improve sleep quality, you need to understand what sleep deprivation is and how to recognize the signs that you are sleep deprived. 

What Is Sleep Deprivation & How Is It Caused?

Sleep deprivation refers to getting less sleep than the recommended 7 to 9 hours for adults or getting no sleep at all on a consistent basis. 

Not getting enough sleep can have long-lasting effects on our health and well-being. While you may think that feeling fatigued is the only side-effect, this is far from the case. In fact, prolonged loss of sleep is known to affect our cognitive functioning as well as a reducing immune function and increasing inflammation. 

It is estimated that at least half of all Canadian adults experience difficulty when falling or staying asleep. Of these individuals, 36.3% are at a higher risk of experiencing chronic stress while 12.3% are likely to suffer from poor mental health. 

Sleep deprivation causes can range from a number of different factors including:

  • Shift work
  • Work or personal stress
  • Unsuitable sleep environments
  • Use of electronic devices
  • Medical problems  

Regardless of the cause, if you are going through a prolonged period of being unable to achieve refreshing sleep then you need to act quickly. Every hour of sleep that you lose, your mind and body will become less capable of carrying out necessary daily functions. 

Sleep Deprivation Stages: What Are They?

It is true that each person may require different amounts of sleep in order to feel refreshed upon waking. For one person, it maybe 8 hours while for another, it could be 5 hours. With that being said, there is a timeline that tracks the general stages of sleep deprivation progression. 

Each stage is broken down into 12 or 24-hour increments with symptoms worsening with each additional hour of lost sleep. 

Stage One: After 24 Hours

Staying awake for 24 hours certainly isn’t uncommon. Many people may have experienced this either due to travelling, being ill or having to look after a newborn baby. The first stage of sleep deprivation is considered as being the least harmful. However, it also compared to having a blood alcohol level over the legal driving limit. 

In stage one, individuals will experience symptoms such as irritability, drowsiness, brain fog, food cravings, fatigue and reduced concentration. 

Stage Two: After 36 Hours

Once a person has been awake for more than 36 hours, they are officially in stage two of sleep deprivation. During this stage, your cognitive functioning will begin to be heavily impacted. This is because your brain will begin to have trouble sending signals needed to communicate with different parts of the organ. 

Symptoms will intensify as sleep deprivation progresses. You can expect to feel an overwhelming urge to sleep and may experience periods of microsleep that last for up to 30 seconds. As your cognitive functioning begins to decline further, you can also expect to experience the following symptoms:

  • Impaired decision-making
  • Behavioural changes
  • Slow reaction times
  • Increased risk of mistakes and accidents
  • Extreme fatigue 

Stage Three: After 48 Hours

After 48 hours of lost sleep, an individual is now experiencing extreme sleep deprivation. During stage 3, it is common for people to begin having hallucinations and increased periods of microsleep. Other side effects common to this stage of sleep deprivation include a heightened sense of stress, feelings of depersonalization and high levels of anxiety. 

The further an individual progresses along the sleep deprivation timeline, the longer it will take to regain a healthy sleep schedule. 

Stage Four: After 72 Hours

On the third day of sleep deprivation, cognitive functioning is impacted even further with many sleep studies suggesting that hallucinations become much more complex. Along with extreme fatigue, a person’s perception will become remarkably fragmented causing delusions and intense feelings of depersonalization. 

Stage Five: After 96 Hours

The final stage of sleep deprivation is the most dangerous. Once an individual’s body goes without sleep for 96 hours or more, they enter into what is known as sleep deprivation psychosis. Sleep deprivation psychosis makes it impossible to perceive reality normally. 

Urges to sleep will be unbearable, while the ability to think clearly is severely distorted. It is not uncommon for individuals to severely injure themselves during this stage. 

What Are The Telltale Signs Of Being Sleep Deprived? 

While we noted some of the symptoms that you experience during sleep deprivation, there are other signs that you may not automatically recognize as being linked to lack of sleep. While chronic fatigue is a given, an individual who may be sleep deprived may also have a number of the following telltale signs:

  • Weight Gain - Poor sleep quality has been known to play a helping hand when it comes to weight gain. It is estimated that even experiencing 5 hours of sleep or less in a week can cause a gain of at least 2 pounds. When we feel fatigued, food cravings increase meaning we struggle to regulate our appetite levels. 
  • Depression - When sleep gets disturbed, it can severely impact our mood and mental state. Many people who are sleep deprived note an inability to control emotions, increased anxiety levels and feelings of depression. 
  • Hypertension - High blood pressure is also a common sign of sleep deprivation. This is because chronic poor quality sleep prevents our bodies from achieving deep sleep preventing our bodies from being able to regulate blood pressure levels. 
  • Memory Loss - As we learned above, lack of sleep can severely reduce cognitive function. One such area is memory retention. With every hour of sleep that is lost, our ability to retain information is impaired. That is why it is common for sleep deprived individuals to have trouble remembering important information.

  • Treatment Options: How To Get On The Road To Recovery

    Whether you are in the first stage or the last stage of sleep deprivation, there are key steps that you can take to get your sleep schedule back on track. While we always recommend that you speak with a physician if you are having difficulty falling or staying asleep, there are a number of ways that you can proactively treat sleep deprivation yourself at home. 

    Home care strategies and lifestyle changes are necessary for improving sleep quality. For those who are struggling with stress or anxiety, relaxation techniques such as meditation, breathing exercises and mindfulness training can be beneficial in reducing tension and a racing mind. 

    Additionally, making changes to your daily routine such as cutting back on caffeine intake, getting regular exercise, reducing electronic usage before bed and sleeping in a bedroom environment that is dark, cool and quiet can make a difference. 

    If these treatment options for sleep deprivation aren’t working, then you can go down the route of taking medication to improve sleep quality. However, this should only be done on the recommendation of a registered physician.


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