6 Subtle Signs You’re Sleep Deprived — and Why It Matters

By Maria Masters |

Yawning isn’t the only sign you’re getting too little sleep at night. Here are some less obvious signs that you need more shuteye.

Subtle Signs of Sleep Deprivation

Nodding off at night should be an easy thing to do. For many of us, though, it’s anything but.

Maybe you’re roused out of your slumber by a sudden urge to use the bathroom. Maybe you’re waking up earlier than ever these days. Or maybe you’ve simply gotten used to feeling less well-rested than you did when you were younger.

If that’s the case, you might be quick to chalk up your restless nights — and groggy mornings — as the new normal. After all, now that you’re older, it makes sense you’d sleep less than you once did, right?

Not necessarily. “Most people ages 65 to 75 are still going to need about seven to eight hours of sleep,” says Aatif M. Husain, M.D., the division chief of epilepsy, sleep, and neurophysiology at Duke University School of Medicine. While it’s true that our sleep quality changes with age — we spend less time in deep, restorative sleep, thanks to natural changes in our circadian rhythms, he says — it’s still important for us to get enough quality shut eye.

Sleep deprivation can have serious consequences for people of any age. Not only can poor sleep increase the risk for accidents — both falls and car crashes — but it can also lead to chronic conditions like heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, and depression. Moreover, research published in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine found that people who sleep poorly also tend to be less active, possibly because they’re too tired to exercise during the day.

Given the stakes, it pays to recognize the symptoms of sleep deprivation — some of which can be more subtle than you may think. Here are a few telltale signs you may not be getting enough shut eye.

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Sign #1: You Need a Nap During the Day

It’s a myth that older adults need to take an afternoon nap. Rather, napping is likely a sign that you’re tired from sleeping poorly the night before. “The main symptoms of sleep deprivation are sleepiness and fatigue,” says Dr. Husain.

That said, not all naps are problematic. It can feel good to nod off around noon — “we’re naturally built to slow down after lunch,” he says — and in some cultures, a nap is an accepted part of the day. The key, he says, is that the nap should be voluntary, not one that you absolutely need to take.

And remember, we only need about seven to eight hours of sleep every 24-hours or so — and that number includes naps. “If you sleep for one of those seven hours during the day, you’re only going to have six left over at night,” he says.

Sign #2: You Have Headaches in the Morning

Waking up in the morning with a headache is a possible sign of sleep apnea, a sleep disorder in which a person temporarily stops breathing at night. Apnea not only causes drowsiness during the day, but it also increases our risk of developing high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and other heart problems.

Grinding your teeth in your sleep can also leave you with a head-throbber in the morning, as well as interfere with your shuteye.

Plus, a lack of sleep is one of the biggest triggers of headaches among people who have migraine and chronic tension-type headaches, according to a study published in the journal Pain.

Sign #3: You’re More Irritable Than Usual

Too little sleep can put us in a bad mood, both in the short-term and long-term. A study by researchers at Iowa State University found that people who slept for fewer than five hours a night for two nights in a row were more prone to anger than those who slept longer. One possible reason: A lack of sleep may make it harder for us to control our emotions.

A lack of sleep is also linked to mental health conditions, says Dr. Husain. According to a review in the Journal of Cellular and Molecular Medicine, people who have sleep disorders are more likely to have depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. One theory, say the researchers, is that too-little sleep can increase inflammation levels in the body — and conditions like depression are associated with high levels inflammation.

Sign #4: You Can’t Stop Snacking

Ever polished off a bag of chips or a sleeve of cookies only to still feel hungry? Last night’s tossing and turning could be to blame.

A night of poor sleep has been shown to trigger overeating the next day — to the tune of an extra 385 calories — as well as a preference for fattier foods and snacks, according to a review published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Past research has found that a lack of sleep can increase the levels of the hormone ghrelin, which causes you to feel hungry, and decrease the levels of the hormone leptin, which helps you feel full.

We may also simply need more food-as-fuel to power us through those extra hours we spend awake, according to a review in Physiology & Behavior. Or we may reach for a mood-boosting treat to offset a bad mood caused by too little time in bed.

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Sign #5: You’ve Been Getting Sick Lately

Sleep plays a surprisingly big role in helping to regulate our immune systems. When we don’t get enough shuteye, we’re more likely to be sickened by a virus or other bug. One study published in the journal Sleep found that people who logged six hours of sleep or less per night for a week were more susceptible to catching a cold than those who snoozed for at least seven hours.

During sleep, our immune system releases certain proteins called cytokines, which help ward off infections. Getting too little sleep decreases the amount of cytokines we produce, making us more susceptible to illnesses.

Sign #6: You Fell Yesterday. And the Week Before That

Everyone’s at risk for a fall — and some of us are clumsier than others — but it’s also true that getting too little sleep can increase our odds of taking a spill. One study by researchers from South Korea found older adults who slept five hours a night or less were more likely to be injured from a fall compared to those who slept eight hours a night.

That could be because a lack of sleep can cause coordination problems and poor judgment, which increases the risk of a fall.

If you’re showing signs of sleep deprivation, it’s a good idea to give your doctor a call. You may have an underlying sleep disorder like sleep apnea, which can be treated with the help of a CPAP device. You can also improve your quality of sleep through lifestyle changes, like cutting out naps or increasing your level of physical activity.

See our sources:
How our sleep changes as we age: MedlinePlus
Sleep deprivation overview: National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute
Study on link between sleep and exercise: American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine
Sleep apnea overview: Mayo Clinic
Study on poor sleep as a headache trigger: Pain
Link between sleep and emotions: American Psychological Association
Prevalence of depression in people with poor sleep: Journal of Cellular and Molecular Medicine
How poor sleep can trigger overeating and cravings: European Journal of Clinical Nutrition
Study on the energy balance between sleep and diet: Physiology & Behavior
Link between poor sleep and susceptibility to illness: Sleep
Study on lack of sleep and coordination issues: Yonsei Medical Journal

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