Every college student knows the eye-stinging pain of a caffeine-induced long night. Prolonged sleep deprivation has been shown to impair memory, cognition, and motor function, even giving you the giggles. No one has proven why sleep is essential to life, and no one has died from sleep deprivation. Famous sleep researcher John Allan Hobson says, “The only known function of sleep is to cure sleepiness”. Will sleep harm you?
Continuous lack of sleep in mice results in 100% death within a short time. Every mouse that was sleep-deprived died within 2-3 weeks of the trial. Similar investigations have not been done on humans for obvious reasons. However, many animal research and innumerable sleep deprivation trials with humans have shown the various health concerns connected with a lack of sleep, thus the common belief is that a full absence of sleep for too long will kill you. As will be shown, “sleep deprivation” is unlikely to be the cause of death.
(This may be a good time to recommend for those who have difficulties sleeping or wish to improve sleep quality. Sleep Soundly Every Night, Feel Fantastic Every Day: A Doctor’s Guide to Solving Your Sleep Problems by Dr. Robert Rosenberg or Sleep Smarter, by Shawn Stevenson, a flawed but good quick-read primer on sleep optimization.
Sleep Deprivation Kills How?
Let’s examine what makes us want to sleep and how prolonged sleep deprivation affects our health.
Most of your body’s reactions aim to maintain equilibrium. Maintaining a certain range of proteins, lipids, electrolytes, hormones, and pH. Normal body pH is 7.35-7.45. Beyond this range, cells die. Contrary to popular assumption, consuming “acidic” foods doesn’t impact blood pH levels. Your body uses numerous ways to keep this tight.) Similar things apply to most other bodily molecules.
The hypothalamus releases hormones to preserve equilibrium. The hypothalamus governs body temperature, hunger, thirst, exhaustion, emotions, growth, salt and water balance, weight, appetite, and sleep circadian rhythm.
Many Factors Cause You to Sleep and Wake Up
They usually follow 24-hour circadian rhythms.
Adenosine (a purine nucleoside) induces sleep. This chemical blocks neurotransmitters like norepinephrine, acetylcholine, and serotonin, which regulate wakefulness. Adenosine levels rise in the brain while awake. Our bodies break them down during sleeping after they peak in the evening.
Your body regulates sleep with light and dark cycles. Seeing light stimulates a neural route between your retina and the hypothalamus. Your suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) in the hypothalamus instructs several other sections of your body to release hormones that regulate sleep and wakefulness.
When darkness falls, the SCN instructs the pineal gland to release Melatonin. Melatonin reduces alertness and encourages sleep. Melatonin levels peak for 12 hours and drop to almost nothing by 9 a.m., assuming a natural light/dark cycle. Interestingly, artificial light can drastically impact melatonin levels.
If you read this at night, the computer screen light can lower melatonin levels, making you less tired. Medical authorities caution against screen time (cell phones, computers, and TV) due to artificial light. Ignoring their warnings may lead to insomnia and other health difficulties, which we’ll discuss later.
SCN signals the release of cortisol in the morning. The natural wake-up hormone cortisol stimulates the body. It impacts CNS activation, blood sugar, blood pressure, and immunological responses.
This sleep/wake clock changes with age. Children sleep more in the evening, while adults go to bed and get up sooner. Melatonin is released later at night, so teens remain up and sleep longer. The cortisol circadian rhythm doesn’t form until 2 weeks to 9 months in newborns. Every parent wishes for their child to sleep through the night daily! The lucky ones get answers quickly.
We Now Understand How Human Bodies Regulate Sleep
The progressive, neurological disease Fatal Familial Insomnia shows how sleep deprivation can kill. FFI is prion disease. Misshapen proteins called prions can collect in the brain and kill neurons. Condon 178 mutations in the prion protein gene cause FFI.
FFI mostly affects the thalamus. The demise of thalamic neurons causes all FFI symptoms over time. Due to hypothalamus and suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) involvement, sleep/wake cycles are disrupted.
FFI symptoms usually appear between 32 and 62. Starts with insomnia, then weight loss, hunger loss, body temperature issues (too high and low), panic episodes, and phobias. Muscle atrophy, incoordination, and forgetfulness lead to fast dementia and unconsciousness. It’s not typically the first symptom, but absolute sleeplessness is common at the end. The first signs usually lead to death 12-18 months later.
A majority of FFI instances are hereditary. If you have it, your children have a 50% risk of getting it. It’s unusual, so don’t worry about acquiring it. Only roughly 40 families globally have the mutant gene. Sporadic FFI (uninherited) has only been detected 24 times as of 2016.
Since FFI is Rare, What About Those of Us Who Have Chronic Lousy Sleep Rather Than Complete Inability?
Many body systems affect and are affected by hypothalamic and SCN hormones. Individual reactions would require a book-length paper and more medical language than most people want to read. Given this, I’ll just discuss the health effects of sleep deprivation.
Sleeping 6 hours a night for a week changes 711 genes in the average human. Those alterations may explain why sleep deprivation is harmful.
Sleep deprivation can cause high blood pressure, atherosclerosis, heart failure, and heart attack. A 2011 Warwick Medical School study indicated that less than 6 hours of sleep per night increases heart disease risk by 48%. If heart problems don’t scare you, your stroke risk will treble if you’re overweight and sleep less than 6 hours every night compared to healthy persons who sleep 7-8 hours.
Why Weight It?
After one night of disrupted sleep, people eat more and pick high-calorie, high-carb items due to aberrant hormones. Without adequate sleep, your body releases more ghrelin, which makes you hungry, and less leptin, which makes you full.
Sleep deprivation raises blood sugar, increasing type 2 diabetes risk. Lack of zzz’s diminishes insulin sensitivity, so you consume more and the body can’t use those sugars since it won’t respond to insulin. Poor glucose metabolism causes carbohydrate cravings, worsening the issue.
Lack of Sleep Can Cause Mental Health Issues as Well as Heart Attacks, Obesity, Strokes, and Diabetes
Drs. Robert Stickgold and Matthew P. Walker observed in 2006 that sleep-deprived people remember negative situations twice as much as happy ones. Further investigations by Matthew Walker in 2007 showed that sleep-deprived participants could not contextualize emotional events and respond appropriately. These findings support other research indicating that poor sleep habits increase depression risk.
Brain health is also affected by sleep deprivation. Waste is eliminated by the lymphatic system. In summary, the glymphatic system removes brain waste that accumulates when awake.
While sleeping, brain cells shrink, improving cerebrospinal fluid passage between neurons and removing waste. Testing shows that beta-amyloids (plaques located between neurons in Alzheimer’s disease) are removed twice as fast while sleeping as when awake.
Avoiding sleep reduces brain function and waste removal. Driving after 17-19 hours impairs coordination, judgment, and reaction times as much. as 05% blood alcohol—almost as much as most states require to convict you of a DUI!
Poor sleep patterns have been linked to immune system issues in numerous research. For instance, sleeping less than 7 hours per night increases your risk of a cold by 3 times. One theory focuses on the generation of undifferentiated naïve T lymphocytes and Cytokines, signaling proteins. While sleeping, their production soars. Sleep deprivation reduces them, and your immune system has trouble remembering invaders, attacking, and killing them.
The Detrimental Effects of Sleep Deprivation
Sleep deprivation exerts a significant toll on overall health, impacting various bodily functions and systems. With the potential for serious consequences, understanding both the advantages and disadvantages is crucial.
The Downsides of Inadequate Sleep
Insufficient sleep disrupts numerous physiological processes, leading to a cascade of negative health effects. From impaired cognitive function to heightened risks of heart disease and diabetes, the consequences of poor sleep patterns can be far-reaching and severe.
Sleep Deprivation’s Impact on Mental Health
Beyond its physical ramifications, sleep deprivation also influences mental well-being. Research highlights its correlation with increased depression risk, negative emotional responses, and an impaired ability to contextualize and respond to emotional events, further underscoring the importance of quality sleep for emotional resilience.
Unpacking the Complex Relationship Between Sleep and Chronic Diseases
Chronic sleep deprivation is linked to a heightened susceptibility to various chronic illnesses. Its associations with cardiovascular issues compromised immune function, and increased cancer risk underscores the critical role of adequate and restorative sleep in maintaining overall health and well-being.
Exploring the Potential Upsides of Controlled Sleep Deprivation
While prolonged sleep deprivation is inherently harmful, controlled and strategic instances of sleep deprivation have been shown to have potential benefits, such as enhancing certain cognitive functions and improving the body’s adaptive response to stress. However, these potential benefits must be balanced against the inherent risks of prolonged sleep deprivation.
Strategies for Maintaining Healthy Sleep Patterns
Establishing Consistent Sleep Routines
Creating and adhering to a regular sleep schedule is paramount for maintaining healthy sleep patterns. Set a fixed bedtime and wake-up time, even on weekends, to regulate your body’s internal clock, promoting more restful and consistent sleep.
Crafting a Restful Sleep Environment
Designing a conducive sleep environment can significantly improve the quality of your sleep. Ensure your bedroom is cool, quiet, and dark, and invest in a comfortable mattress and pillows that support proper spinal alignment. Minimize screen time before bed and consider utilizing white noise machines or earplugs to block out disruptive sounds.
Practicing Relaxation Techniques for Better Sleep
Incorporating relaxation techniques into your bedtime routine can help prepare your mind and body for a restful night’s sleep. Experiment with mindfulness meditation, deep breathing exercises, or gentle yoga stretches to alleviate stress and promote relaxation. Engaging in these practices before bedtime can signal to your body that it’s time to unwind and prepare for sleep.
Maintaining a Healthy Lifestyle for Improved Sleep
Adopting a healthy lifestyle can have a positive impact on your sleep quality. Incorporate regular physical activity into your daily routine, but avoid vigorous exercise close to bedtime. Limit caffeine and alcohol consumption, particularly in the hours leading up to bedtime, as these substances can disrupt your sleep patterns.
Managing Stress and Prioritizing Mental Well-being
Effective stress management is crucial for maintaining healthy sleep patterns. Practice effective time management, set realistic goals, and cultivate a balanced approach to work and personal life. Prioritize activities that promote mental well-being, such as engaging in hobbies, spending time with loved ones, and seeking professional support if necessary. Developing healthy coping mechanisms for stress can prevent sleep disturbances and promote overall well-being.
Neglecting sleep will kill you. Staying up for more than two weeks will kill you swiftly. Chronically not getting enough sleep will kill you in many ways later on.
Critical semanticists may argue that bodily reactions to sleep loss kill, not sleep deprivation itself. Matter in the end? Unfortunately, poor sleep patterns will hinder the body from maintaining homeostasis in many vital functions, proving workaholics right—they’ll sleep when they’re dead.