Sleep health terminology: the difference between insomnia and sleep deprivation

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insomnia versus sleep deprivationInsomnia and sleep deprivation: It’s common to find these two references to poor sleep used interchangeably, but the truth is, they are two separate concepts.

What is the difference between insomnia and sleep deprivation?

It may seem like mere semantics, but the “opportunity to sleep” figures prominently into either definition.


This refers to one’s inability to get adequate and/or quality sleep, despite plenty of opportunity to sleep. If you can imagine people lying in bed all night, staring at the alarm clock, not sleeping, then you have a pretty good idea what insomnia is.

Generally speaking, people don’t choose insomnia. They struggle to fall asleep or to stay asleep or they awaken far too early and lose sleep in that way.

Insomnia is probably more prominent in the presence of medication or substance use, the presence of other health conditions, or other sleep disorders, as well.

Sleep Deprivation

This can refer to two different concepts:

  • the shortening or complete loss of sleep due to externally imposed restrictions on one’s opportunity to sleep. If you can imagine a college student staying up all night to study for a test or a nurse working the overnight shift, then you can see that they have voluntarily opted to remove any opportunities for sleep.
  • the result of ongoing sleep loss (voluntary or otherwise). You become sleep deprived if you continue to sleep less than 8 hours a night over a long period of time. Collectively, that lost sleep is known as “sleep debt” and the more you incur, the harder it is to fix.

Generally speaking, people choose (consciously or subconsciously) to deprive themselves of sleep. To be fair, sometimes it’s necessary to lose sleep at night: a loved one may be in the hospital, or traveling may demand it. However, many (if not most) people who are sleep deprived have fallen into bad sleeping patterns that practically guarantee they will be tired all the time.

Why does knowing the difference matter?

If you have insomnia, you are experiencing a sleep disorder (or the symptom of a sleep disorder or other medical condition). In this case, there are chances for you to seek therapy, whether it is cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-i), sleep medications, a combination of both, or something else entirely.

If you are sleep deprived, you have the power to change your habits and sleep patterns to improve the amount and quality of the sleep you get every night. For instance, you can:

  • find ways to change your work schedule, either by consolidating night shifts or seeking flex time or a day schedule
  • schedule a short power nap during the day to recharge and “pay down” your sleep debt
  • prioritize sleep by doing your work or homework before bedtime
  • practicing better sleep hygiene so that you spend all 8 hours of your entire time in bed asleep (that means no working in bed, no TV or light-emitting handheld devices in the bedroom, for instance)

Whatever the cause of your daytime fatigue and nighttime sleep problems, it’s important to take action to correct them. They don’t typically go away on their own. In fact, insomnia and sleep deprivation will both worsen over time if left to their own devices. This can lead to chronic illness, higher risks for accidents and mistakes, mental health problems, and much more.