If you've ever been awake for an extended period of time, you know that's not a good idea. Even a night of interrupted sleep can cause problems the next day - and there are few things worse than not getting enough sleep for days. But can you die of fatigue?
Can you die of fatigue?
No one dies for lack of sleep. However, being sleep deprived increases absolutely every other risk we face. You're more likely to die while driving if you're sleep deprived, and the risk of a small amount of alcohol while driving is much higher if you haven't slept. Slips and falls are more likely with lack of sleep, not to mention stroke, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, obesity, suicide risk, etc.
Some reported cases
It is true that most of the deaths presumed to be due to sleep deprivation can be attributed to other causes. In 2012, a Chinese football fan reportedly died of exhaustion after staying up 11 nights in a row to watch every match in the Euro 2012 championship. Two years later, the same thing happened when another fan Chinese soccer star stayed up for days to watch the World Cup.
However, in both cases, the cause of death was unclear. In the first case, the man would have died from the combined effects of alcohol, tobacco and sleep deprivation. In the second, doctors cited a possible heart attack as the causative factor.
We know there is a condition associated with lack of sleep that can be fatal. With fatal familial insomnia, a prion disease of the brain, patients spend from complete insomnia to dementia and die between seven and 36 months after onset. However, it is a degenerative brain disease that also affects other body regulating functions such as temperature and heart rate regulation. Even here, it's not insomnia alone that's causing the problem.
Fortunately, this disease is extremely rare. It has only been found in about 40 families worldwide and should not be cause for concern.
How long can you go without sleep?
In fact, it seems that people can go without sleep for a surprisingly long time. You may remember a show called Shattered, where contestants stayed awake as long as possible in order to win a cash prize. (The winner, Clare Southern, managed a grueling 178 hours.)
The study on most famous sleep deprivation took place in 1964, when a 17-year-old boy, Randy Gardner, purposely went 264 hours (11 days) without sleep. Although he was hallucinating on day 5, he appeared to suffer no long term ill effects and was sleeping normally within a few nights.
Since then, there have been several attempts to break this record, including 449 hours by Maureen Weston in 1977. However, the Guinness Book of World Records has stopped certifying these attempts so as not to encourage people.
This means that the true outer limits of endurance to sleep deprivation are not known. And in fact, sleep deprivation research has been hampered by ethical issues. You can't tell human subjects to stay awake until they become dead.
Animal experiments suggest death from sleep deprivation is possible. In the 1980s, the University of Chicago conducted a series of experiments on rats and found that after 32 days of sleep deprivation, all rats died.
However, in practical terms, it appears that the brain has a defense mechanism against prolonged insomnia. Stay awake long enough and you'll be very prone to micro-sleeps - temporary, involuntary episodes of unconsciousness that last only a fraction of a second. (While micro-sleeps serve a purpose, they're also part of why you shouldn't drive when you're tired.)
Consequences of lack of sleep
So how does not sleeping really affect your health?
A loss of just one hour per night for several nights in a row will gradually affect your mood, physical health and performance.
The effects of this extended and shortened sleep are evident in your hormones, heart rate, appetite and digestion. Your resistance decreases, and if you were sick at the beginning, your recovery slows down. These changes are mild at first, but build up over time.
Unfortunately, many of us are in this state most of the time (whether from insomnia, busy lives, or small children). Although we can try to compensate with caffeine, sugar, etc., the only real antidote to sleep loss is sleep itself. (You don't need to put back all or even most of what you lost.)
In the long term, the effects of sleep deprivation are made worse, with chronic sleep loss playing a clear role in a number of physical illnesses and mental health issues.
We've known this for about a decade, but more recently research has begun to show how resistance to infection or inflammation and recovery from it are massively affected by chronic sleep loss.
Again, most of these effects are reversible, but it takes a lot more than a few decent nights of sleep, due to physical damage to the body or brain - hence the lifestyle changes that are also part of it. of the recovery process.
Although the amount of sleep you need is very individual - it will depend on your age, gender, health, lifestyle etc. - if you don't have enough, you'll know. If prolonged lack of sleep is an issue, see your doctor, who can give you an assessment and can refer you to a sleep clinic if needed.
Can you die of fatigue? No, but it is worth treating as soon as it starts affecting your quality of life.