Insufficient sleep syndrome is the formal, clinical name for a sleep disorder that might be lurking right under many of our pillows.

This sleep disorder occurs when people suffer chronic sleep deprivation, as a result of not having enough time and opportunity for sleep.

People with insufficient sleep syndrome don’t have a medical, mental, or physical reason for not sleeping enough. They don’t have another sleep disorder that interferes with their capacity to sleep well at night. What they do have is a sleep routine and lifestyle that don’t allow them to get enough sleep to feel rested, and be able to function and feel at their best during the day.

Of course, we all have the occasional night when we don’t get enough sleep. People with insufficient sleep syndrome are routinely not making enough time for adequate rest.

This disorder is often described by sleep experts as voluntary, but not intentional. That’s to say, its caused by choices people make regarding their sleep routines, things like staying up late and underestimating the amount of sleep they need. But most people with insufficient sleep syndrome aren’t aware they’re making these choices, which result in chronic sleep deprivation and all the troublesome symptoms that go with it.

What are those symptoms? People with insufficient sleep syndrome often have:

  • Low energy, fatigue, and excessive tiredness during the day
  • Difficulty with concentration, focus and memory
  • A tendency to be easily distracted
  • Muscle weakness, stiffness, or pain
  • A tendency to nod off when doing things like watching TV, reading, or driving a car

The American Association of Sleep Medicine estimates that about 2 percent of people who visit sleep clinics are eventually diagnosed with insufficient sleep syndrome. But that’s an estimate based on only those people who are actually seeking treatment. Like other sleep disorders, insufficient sleep syndrome is likely to be significantly under-diagnosed.

Who is most at risk?

The short answer is anyone who doesn’t have enough time in their regular schedule for a full night of sleep. For healthy adults, that’s somewhere in the range of 7-9 hours a night. Insufficient sleep syndrome often begins in our mid-to-late 30s, and continues—frequently undetected—into our 40s before it’s recognized. Men appear to be slightly more at risk than women. Anyone with a very early start to their day—a work shift that begins at or before dawn, or another obligation that causes them to rise in the very early morning—is also at higher risk.

The good news is that once it’s been detected, insufficient sleep syndrome is a very straightforward disorder to treat. Because there’s no underlying medical condition that’s causing sleep issues, this condition is remedied by changing behavior, primarily adjusting bedtimes and times you wake up so you leave enough time for a full night’s rest.

insufficient sleep syndromeSounds easy, right? The numbers show that many of us aren’t making time for sleep as much as we need to. A Gallup poll from a few years ago showed that 40 percent of American adults sleep less than a full seven hours a night. And recent research shows that over the past few decades, there’s been a steep climb in the number of adults .

Many of these under-sleeping, over-tired folks are likely suffering from other sleep disorders, including insomnia and sleep apnea, or other forms of sleep-disordered breathing. But given how busy everyone’s lives are today, I wonder how many are also struggling just to make enough time to sleep.

The good news is, insufficient sleep syndrome is relatively straightforward to treat, once it’s been identified. If you suffer from insufficient sleep syndrome, it’s important to adjust your schedule and behaviors to create more time and opportunity to sleep.

Remembering the basics of sleep hygiene is helpful here. They include:

  • Sleeping on a consistent schedule with regular bedtimes and wake times that leave enough time for a full night’s rest
  • Keeping screens out of the bedroom
  • Using caffeine in the morning only
  • Exercising regularly
  • Keeping your bedroom dark, quiet, and comfortable
  • Taking some time to wind down before bed

You can read more about the American Sleep Association’s sleep hygiene tips here.


Written by Caitlin Reynolds