Dead tired, finished, run-down, done in, dead on your feet – all are colourful ways of saying you’re exhausted from lack of sleep.
But can you actually die from not sleeping?
Well, yes and no.
In the short term, evidence that people can keel over and die from staying awake too long is scant and anecdotal at best. At the same time, there’s a direct relationship between chronic sleep deprivation and a range of negative consequences – from heart disease to diabetes to depression – any one of which can shorten your lifespan.
For untreated obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) sufferers, a constant state of tiredness isn’t just a minor irritant, it’s of grave concern.
Taking wakefulness to the extreme
In a few documented cases, people have experimented with staying awake as long as possible, just to see what would happen. It generally didn’t go well. Dr. Matthew Walker, a neuroscientist, author and sleep specialist at UC Berkley in California can attest to the strange effects that can happen after missing a night of sleep.
Speaking with the Berkley News in 2017, he related the tale of a memory experiment where a handful of students stayed up all night in his campus lab: by morning a pair of football players were found crazily grinning, with lipstick and mascara smeared on their faces by some female students in the sleep-deprivation room. “It was a striking demonstration of the emotional and personality impact of insufficient sleep” observed Walker.
After just one night of no sleep, stress hormones and blood pressure are increased.
By three nights of sleeplessness, the brain’s executive function is impaired, and multitasking, attention span and short-term memory are all dramatically impacted. It only goes downhill from there: “I mean, it was crazy, where you couldn’t remember things, it was almost like an early Alzheimer’s thing brought on by lack of sleep,” reminisced a man named Randy Gardner, decades after subjecting himself to an experiment where he stayed awake for a staggering 11 days.
It’s no wonder forced sleep deprivation has been recognized as a form of torture by the United Nations.
Even a little lost sleep is a lot
Gardner didn’t die from staying awake for 11 days. Others who pushed the envelope have actually died in the attempt, though there were usually other factors at play (mainly industrial doses of caffeine and other stimulant drugs, which almost certainly caused harm themselves). However, even losing a little sleep can have a big impact.
According to Walker, we need look no further than daylight savings time for a jarring example. When we “spring forward” and lose an hour of sleep once a year, we see an average increase of 24% in heart attacks the next day. Not surprisingly, there’s a 21% decrease in heart attacks after the night we “fall back” and gain an hour of sleep. When we lose an hour, there are also increases in car accidents, work injuries, mood disorders and even suicides.
It’s pretty clear the cost of losing even an hour of sleep can be high, so imagine what happens if your sleep is short-changed on a regular basis.
Sleep debt adds up
Ever hear the expression, ‘I’ll sleep when I’m dead?’ It goes against logic, but there’s been a certain bravado attached to sacrificing sleep, especially for work. But watch out – embracing a ‘sleep when I’m dead’ attitude might just make it come true sooner than you think: most adults need at least 7 to 9 hours of sleep a night to maintain health and operate at their best.
The long-term effects of all that lost sleep? A compromised immune system, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, depression, mood and social struggles, car accidents, reduced sex drive, early dementia and more. All of these serious issues are linked to sleep deficiency, and they only get worse over time.
Even with the desire to sleep, people with untreated sleep apnea can suffer a similar fate.
Instead of throwing away hours of sleep to burn the midnight oil, OSA sufferers go through nightly sleep deprivation, losing the equivalent of hours of restful sleep, but for them it happens a few seconds at a time. The micro-wakeups they go through, sometimes dozens of times an hour, cumulatively build their sleep debt. Worse, the disruptions prevent them from achieving a prime REM state – the time of night when the body repairs itself. Even if they’re snoring away for 8 hours, they wind up not getting enough deep, restorative sleep – and still waking up groggy.
Sleep apnea is easily diagnosed with a home sleep test. At Apnea Health, we can guarantee an appointment within 48 hours and results in 3 weeks.
So, what’s the bottom line?
At the end of the day, if you’re otherwise healthy, you probably won’t drop dead from missing some sleep on the odd night. But chronically missing sleep can take you out of the “otherwise healthy” category in the longer term, so it’s critical to maximize restorative sleep (along with maintaining other healthy habits) for a long, healthy and happy life.