If you've ever stayed up all night with a sick child, you know the effects lack of sleep can have on you. After a few nights of no sleep you might be asking, "can you die from lack of sleep?" That's a valid question because, after just one sleepless night, you might feel like you're dying.
Even if you haven't lost sleep because of a sick baby, there's a good chance you've lost a night's sleep at some time or another. Insomnia takes a massive toll on your body and your mind, the effects of which start to hit you the very first night. All creatures big and small need rest, but can you die from lack of sleep? Read on to find out what medical experts have to say.
Keep in mind, this article is for informational purposes only and doesn't constitute medical advice. If you have any questions about your lack of sleep or the effects it's having on your life, consult your doctor.
Can You Die from Lack of Sleep?
While you may think you're dying if you don't get a full night's sleep, chances are you're not. The short answer to the question, "Can you die from lack of sleep?" is yes. There is a chance you can die from lack of sleep.
The longer answer is dying from a lack of sleep has not been proven in humans, for obvious reasons. Tests done on rats show that, yes, they can die from lack of sleep, but that doesn't necessarily translate to humans.
There is a disease known as Fatal Familial Insomnia which causes extended insomnia, and it is fatal. The genetic disorder is rare and denies the person sleep entirely. After the symptoms begin, death happens between seven and 73 months of sleep deprivation. This disease is not the norm, though; FFI is a rare genetic mutation that affects the production of the cellular prion protein.
But if you are healthy, the answer to the question "can you die from lack of sleep?" is no. No study has linked non-disease related lack of sleep to death in humans.
THE IMPORTANCE OF SLEEP
Now that we've answered the question you've been wondering about, "Can you die from lack of sleep?" we can explore the importance of getting sleep. Just because you're not likely to die doesn't mean you shouldn't get good sleep. Sleep is vital for the proper function of your body and mind.
Sleepiness prevents you from making sound decisions and can lead to a host of health problems. So, what is it about sleep that's so important? What does sleep do?
How sleep restores your body
There are different stages taking place while you sleep. The stages of sleep include NREM (non-rapid eye movement), N1, N2, N3, and REM (rapid eye movement.)
All of these stages occur at different points in your night's rest, and each one has a role in your health. The entire cycle of your sleep is known as sleep architecture, which is a pattern that repeats about every 90 minutes during sleep.
Non-Rapid Eye Movement
Non-rapid eye movement (NREM) occurs during about 75 percent of the time when we're asleep. It involves four stages, all of which do different things within our bodies. Each stage in the NREM levels are equally important, and they all work together to keep us in tip-top shape.
The first stage in the NREM cycle is known as N1 and happens when we first fall asleep. It's that twilight stage where we're in between being awake and falling asleep. When your head hits the pillow and you start to drift off, but the slightest sound makes you pop your eyes open. That's N1.
Stage two of NREM is called N2. This part of sleep happens when everything fades away around you. Your breathing and heart rate are still regular but steady, and you're distant from your environment. N2 is the stage that affects your body functions because your body temperature starts to drop.
The third and fourth stages of NREM is where some of the magic happens. If you can't get to this stage, your body isn't able to repair itself as well. During N3, the following processes start to happen.
REM (the sleep level, not the band) is probably the most well-known level of sleep. It takes up the remaining 25 percent of your night and first happens about 90 minutes after you fall asleep. Since the sleep architecture repeats, you achieve REM about every 90 minutes after that.
Lots of important things happen in this realm, making REM essential to achieve. REM provides your brain and body with energy, supporting your overall performance during the day. Also, your body essentially turns off your muscles so you can relax and repair.
During all this, your brain is active because this is when you dream. How can you tell someone is in REM? Their eyes start darting back and forth during sleep, making it appear the eyes are rolling.
Physical Signs of Sleep Deprivation
Can you die from lack of sleep? No, not in most cases. However, many things happening in your body make sleep important. What happens to your body if you're not getting enough sleep? If you're sleep deprived, your body will speak to you. It will tell you loud and clear that you need more sleep because it's unable to repair itself effectively.
While the answer to the question "can you die from lack of sleep?" is usually no if you are looking at direct causes of death, sleep deprivation can lead to health problems that lead to a shorter life expectancy.
While you sleep, your body is building an immunity army. It's producing copies of infection-fighting warriors to fight foreign invaders that bombard our body's shores every single day.
When you don't get sleep, your body can't build up its fighting forces. You've left your body with an ill-staffed immune system, trying to fend off trespassers too numerous for a weak system. The result leaves you open for sickness to invade and take over the body. If you let sleep deprivation go on long enough, you could be at risk for chronic illnesses. These illnesses can include everything from diabetes to heart disease.
If you have perfectly healthy lungs and a functioning respiratory system, lack of sleep won't have a huge effect on your lungs. A breathing disorder like sleep apnea can prevent you from sleeping through the night. That will lead to sleep deprivation and problems in other parts of your body.
If you do have a respiratory disease, lack of sleep can make your illness or disorder worse.
Not getting enough sleep may affect your weight in a couple of ways. When you sleep, your body produces two hormones: leptin and ghrelin. It's leptin's job to tell you when you've had enough to eat. It's ghrelin's job to control your hunger center and tell you that you're hungry. Without sleep, your brain reduces leptin and increases ghrelin. Once this happens, your eating spins out of control, and you don't know when to stop.
Overeating can cause you to gain weight. To make it worse, you're too tired to workout because you aren't getting enough sleep. Add increased insulin levels to that, and you're at risk for diabetes.
We've already mentioned how sleep affects your blood pressure, but it also keeps your blood vessels and your heart healthy. Remember, when you sleep your body is in heal and repair mode. The healing and repair can't happen if you don't get enough sleep.
Those who don't get enough sleep are at a higher risk of heart disease, although it's not exactly known why. One study done by the European Journal of Preventative Oncology showed sleep deprivation links to heart attacks and strokes.
Sleep not only affects your physical state but your mental state too. Mental impairment happens because your lack of sleep compromises your central nervous system. Your brain is tired. If you're not resting your brain through sleep, you will have trouble concentrating and learning new things. You'll find that your coordination is off, and your thinking skills have diminished.
A tired brain and an exhausted central nervous system leave you open to mood swings which can lead to depression, anxiety, and mania. If insomnia goes on long enough, you might start to hallucinate. Hallucinations paired with depression or mania can be dangerous.
How Much Sleep Is Enough Sleep?
Now that you know all the things that can happen to your body without proper sleep, how much is enough? The National Sleep Foundation has a chart that highlights the recommended amount of sleep you need based on your age. It all depends on your age, and there is such a thing as too much sleep, so there's a range. Although sleep varies per individual and age, these are sleep parameters every person should hit per day to achieve optimal sleep.
14 to 17 hours
12 to 15 hours
11 to 14 hours
10 to 13 hours
9 to 11 hours
8 to 10 hours
Adults up to 64 years
7 to 9 hours
Adults over 65
7 to 8 hours
As you can see, over time your need for sleep lessens in hours per night. It's important to adhere to these guidelines, so your body can do its various jobs.
The obstacles to sleep
There are many different reasons people can't sleep. Maybe you have too much on your mind. Perhaps you're hot. Maybe you're trying to sleep on a rock, or your jammies are too tight.
Whatever the reason, it's crucial to pinpoint it and nip it in the bud. If the cause isn't as apparent as the ones above, and you can't figure out why you can't sleep, talk to your doctor. Your physician will help you pinpoint the barriers between you and peaceful slumber. Only your doctor can rule out medical reasons for your insomnia, and they may have suggestions for you to try at home.
If all else fails, your doctor could perform a sleep study to isolate the problem. Your first order of business is to figure out what is causing your insomnia. Once you figure that out, you're halfway to solving your problem. Below are some strategies to try so that you can get a full night's rest.
Catching more z's
Can you die from lack of sleep? No, but sleep is still essential. As you can see, you can't afford to go without sleep. Make rest a priority in your life. Make every effort to set yourself up for a successful night's sleep. Merely wishing for sleep isn't enough. Sometimes even laying down isn't enough to ensure you reach that REM sleep. So how do you get more sleep?
To give yourself the best chance possible, incorporate the following strategies into your sleep plan.
Everyone should come up with their bedtime ritual, but sticking with these basics will give you a jumping point to a consistent night's rest.
Getting Enough Sleep for You
Let's ask the question again. Can you die from lack of sleep? The answer is yes if you have Fatal Familial Insomnia, but otherwise, the short answer is no. No, because proof doesn't exist in humans outside genetic disease.
However, if you look at the indirect causes of death that have been linked to sleep deprivation, the answer to "can you die from lack of sleep?" isn't as straightforward. Although insomnia hasn't been linked directly to death, it is indirectly linked. Lack of sleep leads to a smorgasbord of physical and mental problems, which themselves can lead to death: Heart attack and stroke, for example.
The bottom line is we need sleep. Our bodies and our minds won't function properly without it. It's part of our grand design. So sleep. Make a plan and stick to it. Your body will be happy and so will your mind.