It’s pretty obvious when we’re sleep-deprived. The fogginess and fatigue in our body and mind are unmistakable. But how can we tell if we’re just really tired, or if we’re actually experiencing depression?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1 in 3 adults in the United States don’t get enough sleep. The CDC further reports that people who get less than seven hours of sleep a night are more likely to report 10 common chronic health conditions — including depression — than people who get more than seven hours.

The statistics for depression are equally as sobering. As many as 300 million people around the world receive diagnoses with depression, according to the World Health Organization. About 20 million people who have depression also have trouble with restless sleep and insomnia, reports the National Sleep Foundation.

People who are exhausted from lack of sleep can experience symptoms similar to depression, such as:

  • impaired concentration
  • loss of energy and motivation
  • irritability

However, people who have depression can have trouble with sleep, whether it’s falling asleep, staying asleep, or finding themselves sleeping too much.

So, how can you tell the difference? Which issue came first? While it can be confusing, it turns out there are several ways to tell the two apart.

Healthline spoke with Dr. Alex Dimitriu, a psychiatrist, sleep expert, and founder of Menlo Park Psychiatry and Sleep Medicine Center on understanding the differences between sleep deprivation and depression.

“Sleep is the tip of the iceberg for our mind’s state,” Dimitriu explains. “People find it much easier to notice sleep is off because it is objective, thus it truly opens the door to investigating if something else is wrong.”

The main symptom of sleep deprivation, which seems obvious, is daytime sleepiness. Other signs and symptoms include:

  • increased appetite
  • fatigue
  • feeling “fuzzy” or forgetful
  • decreased libido
  • mood changes

On the other hand, signs and symptoms of depression include:

  • insomnia
  • decreased concentration
  • lack of energy
  • feelings of hopelessness, guilt, or both
  • thoughts of suicide

The line between depression and sleep deprivation can blur, depending on what you’re feeling and experiencing. Dimitriu often poses a question to the clients he works with that can get to the root of the problem, and it has to do with a person’s motivation.

“I often ask my patients if they have the desire to do things but lack the energy, or if they simply are not interested in the first place,” Dimitriu says. “Depressed people are more likely to say they simply don’t care to do various activities, even pleasurable ones. Tired people often still have an interest to do things.”

So, therefore, Dimitriu says, depression is more likely than not to have an effect on someone’s motivation — getting to the gym or dinner with friends, for example — and being sleep-deprived is more likely to affect your energy level or your physical ability to do the thing in question.

Dimitriu says another way to tell the difference between depression and sleep deprivation is the timing.

Depression is characterized by a time period of two or more weeks of a persistently low mood or a loss of interest or pleasure in doing things. It’s extreme, and it doesn’t let up after a few days.

“Many psychiatric diagnoses cluster around a 4- to 14-day time span for any mood episode to count,” Dimitriu explains. “Noting that symptoms may vary day to day, the other rule is that these mood symptoms are present more days than not during such a time.”

If any concern stretches for about a week and has an impact on your quality of life, it’s probably a good idea to inform your doctor.

In all cases of sleep deprivation, whether someone is dealing with depression or not, it’s important to fix the sleep problem first, as this can be dealt with at home.

Things such as getting on a regular sleep schedule, limiting screen time, and practicing relaxation techniques before bed are all easy solutions to try first. But if you’re noticing your mood continues to remain low even though your sleep has improved, further evaluation may be needed.

Treatment for depression is different. Therapy and medications help some people, while lifestyle changes, such as exercise, limiting alcohol, and eating a balanced diet can help others.

Having insufficient sleep, Dimitriu reassures, generally won’t bring on depression. Our bodies have an amazing ability to compensate for a lack of sleep. Given time to catch some extra Zzz’s, it can generally bounce back.

“Sleep is the most basic restorative activity for the mind, and can affect everything from mood to energy, to attention and focus.

“I practice psychiatry with a deep understanding of sleep because I believe it is the missing piece of the puzzle, and we have had some truly outstanding outcomes by combining the two. The relationship is as close and fundamental as day and night, yin and yang,” Dimitriu says.


Risa Kerslake, BSN, is a registered nurse and freelance writer living in the Midwest with her husband and young daughter. She writes extensively on fertility, health, and parenting issues. You can connect with her through her website Risa Kerslake Writes, or you can find her on Facebook and Twitter.