Can lack of sleep actually kill you?

In today’s fast-paced lifestyle it might be very hard to remember about the need to rest and relax, let alone actually do it. While trying to get as many tasks done as possible, we often cut down on activities that are essential for our wellbeing such as exercise, eating healthy and worst of all, sleep. Even though a good night’s rest should be an absolute priority to us, very often we avoid it in order to give us some extra time to scroll through Facebook or check our e-mail.

But is it really worth it? Are we really saving any time by sleeping less? Sleep deprivation has been linked to many adverse effects like lack of focus and poor judgment, but is it really such a problem? Could it be dangerous to our lives? If so, how exactly? To answer all these questions we should first analyze both short and long time effects of lack of sleep.

What do one or two sleepless nights do to you?

Let’s say you miss one night of sleep. It’s more than likely that you already did that a few times in your life. A stressful exam, a newborn baby or even a work overload can easily keep us up for such a period of time. So, what are the effects? Firstly, your brain’s reaction will be to release more dopamine. Dopamine is, generally speaking, a ‘feel-good’ hormone so the first perceived effects of sleeplessness might actually be not so bad. You might feel extra motivated, get a small energy boost and your sex drive could go up. Sadly, it is all temporary. After a few hours, you’ll eventually start to feel run-down and sleepy. What’s more, your planning and decision-making skills will significantly deteriorate making you more impulsive. Driving after a sleepless night is definitely not a good idea either since your reaction time is much slower. In fact, it can even be compared to that of a person with a blood alcohol content of 0.08 so legally drunk.

Going without sleep for more than one day obviously, deepens those adverse effects. Your metabolism will gradually slow down to a point where your body is no longer able to break down any glucose. On the other hand, your appetite will go up, causing you to overeat. Your immune system will also temporarily shut down, making your body much more prone to any illnesses and infections. Since your body produces much more cortisol, any wrinkles or fine lines will become much more apparent. At this point, your sex drive will also become pretty much nonexistent. After three days you might start to experience minor hallucinations and memory lapses. Performing some jobs or even just driving a car carries a very serious health and safety risk for you and any other people near you.

The longest documented period of staying awake is exactly 11 days and 24 minutes. The record holder is Randy Gardner who took part in the experiment in 1964 when he was 17 years old. Even though he didn’t sleep for 264 hours, no long term effects have been observed; after he had caught up on his sleep (he slept for more than 10 hours for the next two nights), a full recovery has been confirmed. So, yes, that might sound like good news to you. No person has ever died as a result of short-term lack of sleep alone. However, scientists have conducted a study, in which they kept rats awake for longer periods of time, which showed that the animals died after no more than two weeks. It should definitely be enough to discourage you from ever trying to break Randy’s record.

What if you’re cutting back on sleep more often?

While the effects of losing sleep for a few consecutive nights might seem scary, not sleeping enough in the long term is what we should really be afraid of. Forgoing sleep from time to time or even just slightly shortening its duration might seem like not that big of a deal. So it’s easy to assume it’s not that bad. Yet effects of doing so are catastrophic to our health in the long term. If you sleep less than 6 hours every night or you are constantly woken up by nightmares it is more than possible that you are sleep deprived, even if you might not be aware of it. Sadly, in this situation, no system in your body remains unaffected.

The first part of your body likely to react to the sleep deficit is your nervous system. Your brain doesn’t perform to its full capacity which seriously impairs your cognitive abilities, lowering the quality of your mental faculties. So, while you might spend those 2 or 3 extra hours studying or working during the day instead of sleeping, your actual productivity becomes questionable. Mood swings and overall irritability are also common effects, as emotional health is likely to deteriorate too. In more serious cases it might even lead to depression or paranoia. After being exposed to extreme sleep deprivation for a longer time you can also start experiencing micro sleep. This means falling asleep for a few seconds or even minutes without realizing it. Of course, such occurrence can be even deadly if it happens to you while driving.

If you are really prone to catching colds or it takes you longer to recover from any illnesses, and you also sleep very little, it’s time to connect the dots. It’s your immune system reacting to the lack of rest. Being asleep allows your body to produce antibodies and cells responsible for protecting you from diseases. Avoiding rest essentially robs your immune system from a chance to do so. Your respiratory system also suffers, as it becomes much more vulnerable to infections and worsening any chronic lung diseases such as asthma.

Sleeping is vital to keeping a healthy weight too. Sleep deprivation is a risk factor for obesity that is just as serious as overeating or lack of exercise. It makes your metabolism much slower and generates higher levels of insulin in the body. Controlling your appetite becomes much harder, as the chemicals responsible for appetite control and stimulation are absolutely destabilized. As bad as it sounds, fat storage is not the worst thing you are risking here. Actually, it is the type 2 diabetes that you should really be afraid of since not sleeping enough makes you even up to 2.5 times more likely to develop it. If you are gaining weight you also become more endangered by cardiovascular diseases. And not just a little bit more. Your risk of heart attack could go up even by 45%. Further, heart palpitations and higher blood pressure are much more likely to become your problem if you don’t sleep enough.

A vicious circle of losing sleep

As for most sleep-related problems, sleep deprivation and its effects work two ways. Lack of sleep causes a lot of problems that are not just bad on their own but are also likely to worsen the problem with the sleep itself. For example, depression (which can be an effect of not sleeping enough) might cause insomnia, a sleep disorder involving trouble with sleeping and falling asleep. Likewise, lack of sleep stimulates the production of cortisol which is a hormone that boosts stress which might also keep you up at night. Obesity is a risk factor for sleep apnea, and so on and so forth. Moreover, the judgment of sleep-deprived people is generally much more restricted, especially when it comes to actually assessing if they got enough time to rest. They might start to get the idea they adapted to the shortened sleep time and decide that it is enough for them. While your organism is generally used to deciding how much you should sleep, sleep deprivation causes you to lose touch with what it’s telling you.

After all, the answer to the initial question, whether it is possible to die from lack of sleep, is not a straightforward one. While there is no proof that humans can die from lack of sleep alone, a lot of its long-term effects belong to some of the deadliest diseases known to us. It has been assessed that sleeping less than 6 hours a night for a prolonged period of time corresponds to a 12 percent higher chance of premature death. It’s simply not worth it, to squeeze in 2 extra hours of being awake during your day with such a risk in mind. And even if those odds don’t seem all that scary to you, think about the quality of life affected by sleep deprivation. Lack of energy, the constant feeling of tiredness, irritation, and slowly deadening your senses. Is this really the life that you want?

References

  • NHLBI. (n.d.). What Are Sleep Deprivation and Deficiency? Retrieved from http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/sdd
  • Taheri, S., Lin, L., Austin, D., Young, T., & Mignot, E. (2004). Short Sleep Duration Is Associated with Reduced Leptin, Elevated Ghrelin, and Increased Body Mass Index.PLoS Med, 1(3).
  • Walker, M. P. (2008). Cognitive consequences of sleep and sleep loss. Sleep Medicine, 9.
  • WebMD. (2006, March 15). Sleep Habits: More Important Than You Think. Retrieved from http://www.webmd.com/sleep-disorders/features/important-sleep-habits