As children, we crave an extra few hours out of bed each night. Kids argue with their parents day after day, looking for opportunities to spend more time awake so that they can watch TV or play video games.
We start to equate giving in to our need for sleep with missing out on something we want.
As adults, the relationship we have with sleep isn’t much better.
We start to assume that sleeping is a sign of laziness — telling ourselves that we need to stay up to work harder. We start to guzzle coffee each day to get by, stifling yawns and congratulating ourselves for another 12-hour workday.
You snooze you lose, after all.
However, the truth is that sleep deprivation is much more dangerous than we think.
The effects of losing sleep can be torturous — damaging everything from our concentration to our mental and physical health. Stay awake for long enough, and you can begin to feel as though your life is at risk.
So, what’s the reality?
Can you die from sleep deprivation?
How long can you go without sleep?
Getting plenty of sleep is vital to our emotional and physical wellbeing. Excessive sleep deprivation often leads to a number of short and long-term health effects — and we’ll discuss those in a second.
In the meantime, it’s worth noting that the CDC recommends all adults between the ages of 18 and 60 get at least 7 hours of sleep every night. However, around 35% of us don’t get anywhere near that much rest.
Of course, the amount of sleep that you actually need to stay healthy is variable.
Some people can cope with only 7 hours of sleep, while others need around 9 before they can wake up feeling bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.
Additionally, your sleep requirements will also depend on your age. Children need about twice as much sleep as adults because they’re still going through the process of growing and forming.
So, how much sleep deprivation can kill you?
The answer to that question remains unclear.
According to a review from 2010, the world record for a person going without sleep is 266 hours or 11 days.
Those results come from a sleep deprivation experiment that took place in 1964, with a high school student named Randy Gardner.
By the end of his 11 day period, Gardner was an emotional wreck. He hallucinated, grew paranoid, and suffered from severe exhaustion. But he lived through it.
Since Gardner’s experience with sleep deprivation changed the world, there has been a number of attempts to break the record.
However, the Guinness Book of World Records has stopped certifying attempts — perhaps to prevent people from hurting themselves with sleep deprivation.
What this means is that we really don’t know the answer to “how long you can go without sleep?”
From an ethical perspective alone, we can’t just ask people to stay awake until they drop dead.
Additionally, most of the time the human body won’t allow this. However, we have seen animal experiments that indicate that you can die from too much sleep deprivation.
In the 80s, the University of Chicago conducted a series of experiments on rats and discovered that after 32 days with no sleep, all of the rats had died.
Of course, this research required a very controlled environment.
The human brain, and the brain of most living things for that matter, has a defence mechanism embedded into it to protect us from prolonged periods without sleep.
Stay awake for long enough, and one of the symptoms that you’ll begin to experience is micro-sleeps. Those are temporary episodes of unintended unconsciousness that are just a fraction of a second long.
Although those micro-sleeps might not be enough to keep you healthy forever, they’ll eventually progress into full unconsciousness.
Since our brain just won’t allow us to stay awake forever, it’s very unlikely that you would ever die from sleep deprivation.
Although there have been cases when severely sleep-deprived people have died, they haven’t passed away because of a lack of sleep alone.
In cases when the answer to “can sleep deprivation kill you” is “yes,” the truth is that your sleep deprivation generally causes other reasons for your death. You don’t just drop dead because you’re tired.
Discussing cases of death by sleep deprivation
Let’s take a look at some of the better-known reports of death by sleep deprivation that have been reported over the years.
In 2012, a football fan in China apparently died of exhaustion after he stayed up for 11 full nights to watch every game in the Euro 2012 championship.
That same issue happened again when a different fan stayed up to watch the World Cup for several days.
These cases show us that some people are very dedicated to their favourite sports. However, they don’t prove that you can die from sleep deprivation.
In both cases, the cause of the death wasn’t as clear-cut as you might think. In the first case, the man was thought to have died from a number of things, including exposure to alcohol and tobacco.
In the second case, the doctors said that the man had possibly had a heart attack.
While it’s true in both of these cases that the sleep deprivation likely made the other symptoms more fatal, it didn’t cause death on its own.
There’s only one case in which experts agree that a lack of sleep might be fatal — and that’s in instances of fatal familial insomnia.
FFI is a very rare sleep disorder which is caused by a disease of the brain. People with this condition progress from periods of insomnia, into dementia, often within about a year and a half.
The disease is degenerative to the brain and affects body regulation functions like heart rate and temperature management. Even here, it’s not insomnia alone that leads to death.
Don’t worry; it’s very unlikely that you have that condition. It’s only been found in around 40 families around the world so far.
Can you die from sleep deprivation?
Although deaths have been linked to issues with sleep in the past, it’s not likely that you can die from sleep deprivation alone.
The average person just wouldn’t be able to keep themselves awake for long enough to die from a lack of sleep. Dying this way would require a lot of commitment (apparently to football), as well as various preexisting medical conditions.
However, just because the answer to “can you die from sleep deprivation” is usually “no,” doesn’t mean that sleep deprivation isn’t dangerous. The side-effects of being sleep deprived can easily increase your chances of fatal incidents.
All the while, your immune system doesn’t have a chance to repair and improve overnight. This means that when you do get exposed to things like colds, and other illnesses, they’re more likely to have a significant impact on your body.
The more you struggle to sleep, the less capable you will be of overcoming minor illnesses.
Another point worth noting is that sleep deprivation severely affects your mental health.
If you have issues with feelings of anxiety or depression, or you are suffering from other mental health conditions, sleep deprivation could play a part here too.
The more you suffer from a lack of sleep, the harder it will be to deal with your emotions and keep them in check.
Eventually, an inability to sleep could make you more prone to suicidal thoughts and dangerous behaviors.
A night binge-watching Netflix rather than getting some much-needed shut-eye isn’t going to suddenly cause you to drop dead.
However, everything in your body does begin to suffer when you’re not getting enough sleep.
Losing just one hour a night will gradually harm everything from your physical health to your mood, and how well you perform each day. Sustained periods of lost sleep appear in the performance of your hormones, appetite, and digestion.
What’s more, because your sleeping patterns are crucial to your immune system, a lack of sleep could make you more susceptible to dangerous bugs.
Over time, the effects of sleep deprivation are compounded and increased, with chronic deprivation playing a clear role in various chronic mental and physical health conditions.
While most of the impact caused by sleep deprivation are reversible, you need to find the right strategy to overcome your sleep problems to start improving your health again.
While the amount of sleep that we need is a highly individual thing, if you aren’t getting enough, then you’re going to know about it one way or another.
You may not drop dead from exhaustion one day, but you will feel worse and worse on a progressive basis. Eventually, your risk of death from other causes could be increased, and life, in general, will become more dangerous.
The answer to “can sleep deprivation kill you?” might be no — but it can undoubtedly make death more likely.