An overtired woman looking stressed out while lying in her bed in the early morning.

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It’s Not Just Babies: Adults Can Feel Overtired, Too. Here Are 4 Ways to Get the Sleep You Need

While it’s normal to feel tired at the end of a long day, a person who is overtired can experience extreme sleepiness and a few unpleasant side effects, experts say.

By Kathleen FeltonApril 18, 2024

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“Oh, she’s overtired!” You’ve likely heard this term used to describe a fussy baby or toddler who missed their nap. But adults can become overtired, too, and it’s more common than you might think. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in three Americans report getting less than the recommended amount of sleep each night. 

It’s easy to dismiss a lack of sleep as no big deal, but becoming overtired—whether from insufficient sleep or not enough high-quality, restorative Zzzs—can set you up for detrimental side effects both in the short and long term, sleep experts say.

Read on for the signs that you’ve become overtired (plus, the difference between “regular” tiredness and more serious fatigue), as well as expert tips to help you get the sleep you need.

What Does It Mean to Be Overtired?

While there isn’t a formal medical definition for being “overtired,” experts say this term is typically used to describe the feeling a person can get from not getting enough sleep. “I suspect most people would define being overtired as being sleepy [from an] inadequate sleep amount,” says W. Christopher Winter, MD, a sleep specialist, neurologist, and author of The Rested Child and The Sleep Solution.

For example, new moms and dads often become overtired while caring for a newborn, since new parenthood involves stretches of disrupted sleep. You might also feel overtired during a stressful period of work, while traveling (particularly if you’re crossing time zones), or simply because you haven’t been logging enough shut-eye lately.  

And, yes, babies, toddlers, and young children can also get overtired: Little ones ages 4–12 months old need between 12–16 hours of sleep per day, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), while toddlers need 11–14 hours and preschoolers 10–13. Children who consistently don’t get enough sleep may struggle with irritability, headaches, and a less-healthy immune system.

Being Overtired vs. “Regular” Tired

Again, there’s no medical diagnosis for being overtired, but it’s very normal to feel tired at the end of an “ordinary” day—and this can be considered “regular” tired, experts say. 

“‘Regular tired’ is what we all expect at the end of a very busy and full day,” says Jesus Lizarzaburu, MD, a family physician at TPMG Grafton Family Medicine in Yorktown, Virginia, and a fellow of the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP). “But then after the appropriate sleep and rest, one is relatively ready to start your day.” 

But if you’re overtired, you may feel exceptionally sleepy. And because you’ve accrued something of a “sleep deficit,” you may struggle to feel rested and alert after just one good night of sleep.

Being Overtired vs. Fatigued

Also worth mentioning: Feeling overtired isn’t quite the same as being fatigued. While most experts agree that overtiredness usually results from a lack of high-quality sleep, fatigue is more extreme. It can develop as the result of a health condition such as lupus or heart disease, infections like HIV or Lyme disease, certain medications, or hormone imbalances, and a person experiencing fatigue typically continues to feel tired even after they get enough sleep.

“In other words, an individual struggling with Lyme disease or COVID might feel overtired, even though there is probably nothing wrong with their sleep,” Dr. Winter says. “I consider this an issue with fatigue and not sleepiness.”

Signs You’re Overtired

Being overtired has been associated with more than just sleepiness, although that’s certainly an important symptom to look out for. But if you’ve consistently been getting poor sleep, you might experience a range of other side effects, experts say. 

“Side effects can happen rather soon,” says James McGuirk, MD, an assistant professor in the sleep medicine division at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. “Even just one or two bad nights of sleep could potentially result in these symptoms.”

1. You’re Super Sleepy During the Day

According to Dr. Winter, one of the biggest red flags that you’ve become overtired is finding yourself frequently falling asleep (or very nearly dozing off) during daytime activities that you’d normally have no trouble being alert for. “For example, falling asleep in meetings, while driving, while watching TV, or in religious services,” he says. 

Not only can daytime drowsiness interfere with your quality of life—it may cause you to miss out on important events or jeopardize your work, for example—but it can also be dangerous. The AAFP notes that excessive daytime sleepiness has been linked to a higher risk of motor vehicle and work-related incidents.

2. You’re Having Trouble Sleeping—or Falling Asleep Too Quickly

Ironically, being exceptionally tired doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll be able to fall asleep instantly. Chronic sleep loss can actually make it harder for some people to nod off when they need to, experts say. 

“When there’s a certain level of exhaustion, your body can go into a stress response mode,” Dr. McGuirk explains. “Think fight or flight—it’s the same sort of response. Your body is almost in survival mode, which can make it hard to fall asleep.”

However, everyone reacts to a lack of rest differently: Some people who are overtired might find themselves falling asleep surprisingly quickly. “Falling asleep faster than normal when it is time to sleep can also be a sign that you are seeking sleep more aggressively because of deprivation,” Dr. Winter says. 

3. You’re Noticing Appetite Changes

“Being overtired can be accompanied by other symptoms, too, such as appetite changes,” Dr. McGuirk says. A 2022 study review published in the journal Nutrients found that not getting enough sleep (both not clocking enough hours as well as not getting high-quality, restorative sleep) is linked to an increase in food intake, particularly when it comes to snacking on foods that contain lots of fats and carbohydrates.

4. You Find Yourself Struggling to Concentrate

Perhaps unsurprisingly, being overtired not only makes it hard to stay awake, but it can also make concentration difficult. If you’re at work or school, you might have difficulty focusing on tasks. In addition, someone who hasn’t been getting enough sleep may struggle with impulse control and decision-making in general, Dr. McGuirk says.

5. You’re Noticing Weight Changes

Over time, being overtired can result in weight changes. “This tends to be more chronic and long-term,” Dr. McGuirk says, such as if you’ve had poor sleep for weeks to months. In particular, studies have linked poor-quality sleep to obesity in both children and adults.

6. You’re Moodier Than Usual 

It’s probably no surprise that sleep and mood are closely connected. And just as babies can become irritable if they don’t get enough sleep, so, too, can overtired adults. “When you're overtired, you may experience symptoms such as mood swings and irritability,” Dr. Lizarzaburu says. In one 2021 study review published in the journal Sleep, researchers found that participants who had less sleep experienced a more negative mood and difficulty regulating emotions.

An overtired man sitting at his desk rubbing his eye while holding his glasses in his hand.

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Tips to Help You Fall Asleep When You’re Overtired

If you’re overtired and it’s causing you to have trouble falling asleep at night, you’re likely desperate to find a solution that will help you catch up on your rest. These tips may help make shut-eye easier to come by: 

1. Take a Nap

A short nap during the day may give you a boost of energy to push through the afternoon, as well as make sleep easier once bedtime rolls around. But “short” is the key here, according to Dr. McGuirk: “A nap that’s no more than 20 or 30 minutes, and not too close to bedtime—such as in the early afternoon—is best,” he says. 

That's because the benefits of napping tend to be similar if you look at a short versus longer nap. “But with shorter naps, you get those benefits quicker after you wake up because you’re not trying to wake up in the middle of a deep sleep,” Dr. McGuirk says.

2. Practice Calming Exercises

During the day or just before bedtime, try meditation, which has been found to improve sleep quality. (You can find plenty of guided classes on the Peloton App, with options ranging from sleep meditations to relaxing meditations and more.)

For longer-term sleep problems, Dr. McGuirk recommends a branch of therapy called cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia, or CBT-I. “These are mental and physical exercises that are meant to distract your mind and lower stress,” he says. You can find a therapist or other sleep expert near you through the Society of Behavioral Sleep Medicine,the American Board of Sleep Medicine, or the American Academy of Sleep Medicine websites.

3. Avoid Screens Before Bedtime

Many of us feel like we can’t fall asleep without spending a few minutes (or perhaps much longer) scrolling on our phones. But more and more research has associated blue light exposure before bedtime with shorter sleep and poorer sleep quality. As a good rule of thumb, “you should avoid light-emitting screens for about an hour before you go to sleep,” Dr. McGuirk says.

4. Set up Your Bedroom for the Best Possible Sleep

Before you get into bed, take steps to make your bedroom an ideal sleep-promoting space. According to Dr. McGuirk, that might include turning on a white noise machine, using a sleep eye mask, lowering the thermostat (experts say between 60–67 degrees Fahrenheit is best for snoozing), and fully closing the blinds so your room remains dark early in the morning. 

How to Prevent Yourself from Getting Overtired

It’s not always possible to prevent yourself from entering an overtired state (especially if you’re traveling or have a newborn baby, for example), but these strategies may help you avoid getting to that point:  

  • Get enough sleep. You’ve heard it time and time again (and it probably feels painstakingly obvious), but sleeping enough is the surest way to avoid becoming overtired. At least seven hours is the goal for adults between ages 18 and 60, while adults over 60 should aim for up to eight or nine hours, according to the CDC

  • Focus on quality sleep. Not all shut-eye is equal: “[Make sure] you’re having good quality sleep, which is uninterrupted,” Dr. Lizarzaburu says. Following healthy sleep hygiene habits—for example, sleeping in a dark, quiet room at a comfortable temperature—can help make quality sleep easier to achieve.

  • Work on managing stress. Stress can prevent you from falling asleep and scoring quality Zzzs, experts say. Stress-reducing activities such as mindful meditation may improve sleep quality, research shows.

  • Exercise often. “Regular exercise is a very good vehicle for [good quality sleep],” Dr. Lizarzaburu says. Studies have found that moderate aerobic exercise is particularly beneficial for deep, restorative sleep, Johns Hopkins Medicine notes. Not to mention, working out is another great stress reliever.

  • See your doctor if symptoms continue. It’s possible to mistake overtiredness and fatigue, and the latter can be a sign of a medical condition or sleep disorder such as sleep apnea, Dr. Lizarzaburu says. If you’re consistently getting plenty of high-quality sleep and still feel overtired the next day, make an appointment with your doctor. Together, you can figure out what’s causing your sleepiness and rule out an underlying health condition.

The Takeaway

Becoming overtired can happen quickly—even after just a day or two of poor-quality sleep, experts say. It’s not always possible to avoid getting into an overtired state, particularly if you’re a shift worker, traveling, or caring for a newborn baby, for example. But experts stress the importance of doing your best to prioritize sleep and aiming for a full seven to nine hours a night as often as possible. While it can seem like no big deal to clock a few nights of less-than-stellar sleep, being overtired can increase your risk of unpleasant side effects, ranging from difficulty concentrating and extreme daytime sleepiness in the short term to chronic issues like weight changes in the long term.

This content is for informational and educational purposes only and does not constitute individualized advice. It is not intended to replace professional medical evaluation, diagnosis, or treatment. Seek the advice of your physician for questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition. If you are having a medical emergency, call your physician or 911 immediately.

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