Illustration of tired eyes.

Can You Die From Sleep Deprivation?

Mar 20, 2017

Life is a fragile gift. And yet, or perhaps because of this, humans are obsessed with testing their limits and pushing their biological boundaries. You’ve certainly at least wondered, if not informally experimented, how long you can go without “fill in the blank”: breathing, eating, drinking, and so on. Thankfully for all those would-be survivalists, there are some handy standards to literally live by, known as “the Rule of Threes.” As general principles, you can go three minutes without air, three hours without shelter (in a harsh environment), three days without water, and three weeks without food. As always, there are numerous notable exceptions to the rule, but for trivia night or your own imagined doomsday preparations, those guidelines should be sufficient.

But what about sleep? We spend roughly a third of our lives asleep. In fact, the drive to sleep will ultimately even trump the drive to eat, so it’s natural to wonder why we need so darn much of it and if we could get by with less. How long can you go before your body gives in and nods off? Or how long before it even surrenders to “the big sleep” and ends your life altogether? Is that even possible? Unfortunately, the scientific community remains split on the deadliness of sleep deprivation. However, they remain united on one front: You must give sleep its time of day.

So, first off, how long can you go? Well, we have at least one specific reference thanks to a brave, foolish individual. Randy Gardner holds the scientifically-accepted record for staying awake without stimulants for 264 hours, roughly 11 days, as a high school student in the 1960s. (Others since have reportedly beat this record, but without extensive and authenticated documentation.) By day 11, he was essentially a vegetable, suffering from eyesight issues, speech and memory deficiencies, and even hallucinations. Gratefully, he did not die, though, and made a full recovery by making up his sleep debt in the days that followed.

Others weren’t so lucky. In 2012, a 26-year-old Chinese man undertook the challenge of watching every game in the European Soccer Championship. Over 11 days. During this marathon, he regularly smoked and drank and ultimately was found dead in his sleep, despite being a young man of good health. So did the lack of sleep do him in, or was it the imbibing?

This sort of debate comes up time and time again when attempting to determine if no sleep can be lethal. In the 1980s, researchers at the University of Chicago experimented on rats by depriving them of sleep. Balancing on a rotating disk over a pool of water, each time the rat dosed off, the disk bumped into a wall, threatening to push it into the water. All of the rats died within a month of tireless tiring experiments, but their deaths were attributed to the stressful environment and changes in metabolism and temperature, causing weight loss and hypothermia.

So sleep deprivation may not kill you itself. But it will make life so unpleasant that other things do. The symptoms associated with lack of sleep include (bear with us) depression, headaches, aching muscles, memory loss and disorientation, false memories, styes, hand tremors, irritability, obesity, increased risk of diabetes/fibromyalgia/stress levels/blood pressure/heart issues, seizures, and mania. Phew. Just reading that makes you tired. Insomnia sufferers, by all means, utilize this article.

These symptoms don’t all hit at once, of course. After a day without sleep, the effects are comparable to someone with a blood alcohol content of .10, which becomes particularly relevant when getting behind the wheel without rest. Judgment and memory are impaired, blood pressure rises, and you become more emotional. Your risk of deathly accidents statistically increases as well. After another day or so, your metabolism goes out of whack, increasing appetite and carbohydrate cravings. Your body temperature will drop, as will your immune system’s ability to fight back, increasing likelihood of sickness. With more sleeplessness, hallucinations and even microsleeps, similar to miniature blackouts, begin to takeover. And with enough time, your body will either shut down and demand rest or, if enough symptoms conspire against you, possibly shut down for good.

No one questions the importance of a balanced diet, regular exercise or staying hydrated. But sleep alarmingly remains a taboo necessity, something to be embarrassed of rather than embraced. Quality sleep is a pillar of a healthy life and, as these facts show, actually staying alive. Perhaps consider exchanging experiments: instead of “how long can I stay awake,” ask yourself, “How well can I sleep tonight?” The answer will certainly improve your life. But it may just save it as well.

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