Theophanes is a New-England-based blogger, traveler, writer, photographer, sculptor, and lover of cats.
You Can Die from Lack of Sleep
It's true. If you don't sleep you will eventually die. We know this because we have been studying sleep for years in an attempt to figure out what it is and why we need it. We've been successful in getting some answers but as a whole we're still pretty clueless. Sleep studies may have started when researchers decided to see if it was even necessary. They took lab rats and technicians took turns forcing the rats to stay awake. Within three weeks these healthy animals had their health decline so bad that they died.
Here's where things get interesting. We know the rats died and it was because of lack of sleep but we still don't know why the lack of sleep was a problem. We do however know what it did. These rats suffered in stages, much as a human would. By the end stage their immune systems were completely shot, their hearts were weak, their bodies showed great stress with loss of fur and sores, and they were at great risk of infection.
It is hard to say what happens to humans who suffer the same profound lack of sleep. Human studies have been done but not to that extreme. No one wants to kill their participants. That being said there is a very rare condition that happens naturally in humans that could provide answers. It is called Fatal Familial Insomnia. It generally strikes people after their peak childbearing years and starts as mild insomnia, progressing to complete insomnia over time. The man it was first identified in, Micheal Corke, was a music teacher in the 1990s. His doctors tried every sort of sleeping pill but to no avail. He remained awake and after six months without so much as a nap he died.
Sleep Deprivation Damages the Brain
One organ that is particularly vulnerable to sleep deprivation is the brain. Without sleep it starts to function erratically. Verbal skills go down the drain, fine motor movement can be effected, people get clumsy, and exercise poor judgement skills. Even worse it affects mood and can fling people into irritated states and foster depression. Our alertness declines drastically as does our ability to remember things and problem solve. We're also prone to making mistakes when we're in this fog. Medical students who get less than four hours of sleep a night have been shown to make twice the amount of mistakes as well rested residents. This isn't very comforting, particularly knowing nurses, ER staff, and surgeons often have to pull longer and longer shifts due to shortages of personnel in their field. Even more disturbing is the effects on the average individual. Being fatigued can have worse effects than being drunk. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine has reported that up to 80,000 drivers in the US fall asleep behind the wheel every day. This results in 250,000 accidents - a full one in four of all accidents are reported to have "driver fatigue" involved. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) claims, rather conservatively, that at least 1,550 deaths a year are caused by sleepy drivers. Just think about that - even if you've never drank and drove in your life you still could be a danger to our highways or even your fellow workers. Workplace accidents show great increases when sleep deprivation is involved.
Sleep Deprivation is Really Straining on Your Heart
In the US we are facing an epidemic of obesity which has its roots in many things - the cheapness and availability of junk food, our increasingly sedentary life styles, and our lack of sleep. When the body doesn't get enough sleep it releases different hormones than it would if it were well rested. These hormones will make people crave carb-heavy foods and larger amounts than they really need. To make this issue all the worse the body is much less effective at properly processing these foods when it is fatigued. In short it turns into the fat that you carry on your body. Of course obesity is the main catalyst for things like Diabetes and many heart diseases as well as high blood pressure.
Your heart was not made to haul around an additional 100 or more pounds of fat on you. It often grows enlarged trying to deal with this and that's not a good thing. Sleep deprivation has been linked to high blood pressure, anxiety disorders, heart attacks, stroke, and even heart failure. The numbers are alarming.
Sleep Deprivation is not Good for People Around You
Up to 70 million US residents may be affected by sleep disorders. That's not a small number and these people have additional challenges. With sleep deprivation making them moody and often quick tempered they can create a hostile work environment. At home things aren't much better. Sleep disorders can cause immense damage to relationships, particularly if a couple has to sleep apart from each other. Even baby can't get away from the damaging effects of mom's lack of sleep. Fetuses in the womb can suffer growth retardation which can follow them well into childhood. Sadly all these additional worries can increase anxiety which makes sleep all the harder to obtain.
What to do...
If you suffer from a sleep disorder please consider going to a doctor and being officially diagnosed and treated. The field has grown in leaps and bounds in the past twenty years and we have much more effective ways of managing these things than we used to.
Besides the medical aspects of it there are a few easy things you can do.
1) Sleep on a schedule if you can. This doesn't just include sleep but a slot of time before bed where you can just relax, unwind, and get prepared to sleep.
2) Allow yourself enough time to sleep. The average person needs between 6-8 hours of sleep a night but some of us require up to twelve hours. This can be intensely frustrating (I know - ever since I caught mono as a teenager I go through periodic bouts where I absolutely need this much sleep!) Even so please learn how to manage it.
3) If you have to drive and you are sleepy please pull over and take a little power nap. 15-20 minutes of shut eye could save a life and it's far more healthier than putting the additional strain on your heart by drinking energy drinks and the like!
4) No caffeine, energy drinks, or high sugar foods before bed. It very well may disrupt your ability to get to sleep or stay asleep.
5) Make sure your sleep environment is dark and quiet. People who wake up continuously through the night due to noise or other intrusive factors put an immense strain on their heart and heighten their risk of stroke, high blood pressure, and anxiety disorders.
6) There's nothing wrong with naps! Traditionally before the advent of the industrial revolution people slept two or three times a day instead of all in one stretch. If this works better for you than by all means, a nap is a good thing. Even Einstein had daily naps!
If you liked this hub you may enjoy others by Theophanes:
More from this Author:
Catching Marbles - A New England based travel blog
Tales from the Birdello - For all homesteading and farming matters
Deranged Thoughts from a Cluttered Mind - For funny personal anecdotes
Kristen Howe from Northeast Ohio on November 18, 2015:
Great hub, Theopanes. This was so interesting to know about sleep deprivation and what to do about it, to get what you need for sleep everyday.
Theophanes Avery (author) from New England on November 04, 2013:
Thank you for commenting. It is something that people think little about but which can really have some profound effects. Happy Hubbing.
Deb Hirt from Stillwater, OK on November 02, 2013:
Fabulous material, that literally opened MY eyes.
Theophanes Avery (author) from New England on March 21, 2013:
Why thank you sweetie, I couldn't agree more.
sweetie1 from India on March 21, 2013:
A proper sleep is a must for the body to function properly. Since body carries out its normal repairs when a person sleeps so a 7 to 8 hours sleep is a must . Very nice hub, voting it up and interesting.
Theophanes Avery (author) from New England on March 18, 2013:
Thank you Rebecca. I know, small children are almost sleep's biggest nemesis. ;)
Rebecca Jimenez on March 18, 2013:
I fell upon your article and I do have to say that this is a great hub. I've had 3 children by far and sleep was very hard to come by. Now that they are older, I can finally get in some zzzzzzz.
Very interesting and well done article.
Dumbs up for useful and interesting..
Theophanes Avery (author) from New England on March 18, 2013:
Thank you all for your comments. Yes, lack of sleep (and particularly disturbed sleep) can be pretty rough on the heart, causing anxiety issues and stress. That's never a good thing.
And yes, I feel for the poor lab rats too! (You'll find several rat articles here I have written - I bred fancy rats for a number of years for the pet population. Such awesome little critters. Had I not developed an allergy to them I'd still be doing this!)
Sleep well everyone!
Carol from Greenwood, B.C., Canada on March 18, 2013:
It disturbs me to know that someone experimented to discover that rats died after 22 days without sleep. Just sayin' :-}
torrilynn on March 17, 2013:
it was nice reading about facts that surround sleep deprivation thank
for the read and for the information it will help me to make sure
that I get plenty of sleep.
Donna Hilbrandt from Upstate New York on March 17, 2013:
Fascinating discussion. I see students who don't have a lot of structure and they lack sleep. They are often sick. Speaking of sleep, I am off to get some :)
Tammy from North Carolina on March 17, 2013:
I had no idea sleep deprivation was bad for the heart. I didn't sleep for the first two years of my daughter's life. She didn't sleep at night and I had to get up early for work every morning. She is almost 4 and I am just recovering from this two year span. I learned a lot here. Great hub!
Theophanes Avery (author) from New England on March 12, 2013:
Thank you for your kind comments. Yes, sleep is a strange thing indeed, and one we really shouldn't take too lightly when our lives get chaotic!
The Chewy Mommy on March 10, 2013:
This was a well written, well researched article. Sleep is so important and it is often the first thing sacrificed when life gets busy. We'd all be healthier and happy if we had time for or made time for naps.
Dennis L. Page from New York/Pennsylvania border on March 09, 2013:
Voted up, useful and interesting. Thank you for giving the reader a thorough article on sleep deprivation and its potential consequences. I've been an insomniac my entire life. I have practiced self hypnosis to help me fall asleep, but generally do not require any more than 5 to 6 hours per night. My wife on the other hand, sleeps 9 to 10 hours per night. When she wakes she acts more tired than I do. I often say, "There will be plenty of time for sleeping when I'm dead."
This morning, I was befuddled when I woke, turned on my laptop, made a full pot of coffee, gathered my thoughts, rubbed my eyes and then looked at the clock after my mug of coffee was in hand. Imagine my surprise when I realized that instead of 5:30 it was actually only 3:30. Now, this evening we lose one hour when we set the clocks back. Oh well...perhaps a nap will be the order of the day.
Theophanes Avery (author) from New England on March 08, 2013:
Thank you Dolores. I'm a life-long insomniac and yes... it can make you bonkers. I think I would have killed myself if I were one of the people who got permanent insomnia. After that much lack of sleep you start to hallucinate anyway. Poor sod probably didn't know what was real towards the end.
Dolores Monet from East Coast, United States on March 08, 2013:
Just the thought of not being able to sleep makes me feel tired. I have occasionally suffered insomnia and it can drive you crazy. I can't imagine the guy who was up for 6 months! (voted up & tweeted)