National Sleep Foundation

Chapter 1: Normal Sleep

Sleep Deprivation in Those Without a Specific Sleep Disorder

Sleep deprivation and deficiency can be chronic or short-term. It affects an individual’s functioning, productivity, and quality of life, often with catastrophic results. Sleep deficiency is associated with a number of chronic health problems, including stroke, diabetes, depression, cardiovascular disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure, and obesity. (Note that this section addresses sleep deprivation among normal individuals, rather than deprivation causes by specific sleep disorders.)

The results of sleep deprivation on the brain (decreased alertness and increased drowsiness) can be severe for the individual and for society at large. For example, many notable tragedies have been linked to drowsiness-related human error, including the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill and the 1986 NASA Challenger shuttle explosion.1

People who work in high-stress occupations and those who have shift work schedules are most likely to experience sleep deprivation and sleepiness.2

The field of medicine provides a rich body of research on the dangers of sleep deprivation. For example, more than 30 studies have reported that short-term and chronic sleep deprivation cause mood and performance detriments in young physicians and residents.3  Numerous studies have found that, when medical personnel (i.e., physicians, residents, interns, etc.) experience sleep deprivation due to being on-call or working extended shifts, they have higher error rates in medication orders and surgery simulations; slower performance rates and reaction times; and more lapses in attention.4, 5, 6, 7, 8 The performance of residents after on-call nights has been found to be comparable to that intoxicated individuals and there is a marked increase in their accident rate, including accidents occurring on the drive home from overnight shifts.9


  1. National Transportation Safety Board, Grounding of the U.S. Tankship EXXON VALDEZ on Bligh Reef, Prince William Sound near Valdez, AK March 24, 1989 - NTIS Report Number PB90-916405, Washington, DC: NTSB, 1990; Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident, Report of the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident, Vol. 2. Appendix G. Human Factors Analysis, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1986.
  2. National Sleep Foundation, 2012 Sleep in America Poll: Planes, Trains, Automobiles and Sleep, Washington DC: The Foundation, 2012. Available online at:
  3. Veasey S, Rosen R, Barzansky B, Rosen I, Owens J. Sleep loss and fatigue in residency training: a reappraisal. JAMA. 2002;288:1116-1124.
  4. Hendey GW, Barth BE, Soliz T. Overnight and postcall errors in medication orders. Acad Emerg Med. 2005;12:629-634.
  5. Taffinder NJ, McManus IC, Gul Y, et al. Effect of sleep deprivation on surgeons' dexterity on laparoscopy simulator. Lancet. 1998;352:1191.
  6. Grantcharov TP, Bardram L, Funch-Jensen P, et al. Laparoscopic performance after one night on call in a surgical department: prospective study. BMJ. 2001;323:1222-1223.
  7. Bartel P, Offermeier W, Smith F, et al. Attention and working memory in resident anaesthetists after night duty: group and individual effects. Occup Environ Med. 2003;61:167-170.
  8. Barger LK, Ayas NT, Cade BE, Cronin JW, Rosner B, et al. (2006) Impact of extended-duration shifts on medical errors, adverse events, and attentional failures. PLoS Med 3(12): e487–doi.
  9. Arnedt JT, Owens J, Crouch M, Stahl J, Carskadon M. Neurobehavioral performance of residents after heavy night call vs. after alcohol ingestion. JAMA. 2005;294:1025-1033.