Sleep loss might make you feel like death, but can it kill you? The answer is not so cut and dry. Rat studies have shown that sleep loss can cause death within 11 days to two weeks. In humans, an impressive 11-day streak was set by a high school student as part of a science project. Other studies indicated that aside from being cognitively impaired, humans who were kept awake for several days had no life-threatening symptoms.
The real question to ask is whether or not you are actually awake after long periods of sleep loss. Data shows that your brain may enter periods of microsleep that last for about 30 seconds at a time. Plus, you are at an increased risk of getting into deadly accidents. Miraculously, the ill effects of sleep loss can be reversed in a matter of one to two nights of returning to regular sleep. Can a person die from lack of sleep? Here’s what the research says.
Lack of Sleep Increases the Risk of Death
One or two nights of sleep loss is not likely to kill you, but you won’t want to make it a habit. A study conducted by the American Heart Association found that getting less than six hours of sleep a night could double the risk of death in people with metabolic syndrome (1). Metabolic syndrome increases your risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. It affects more than one-third of Americans (2). To be diagnosed with metabolic syndrome, you need to have at least one of the following symptoms: low HDL “good” cholesterol, high fasting blood glucose and high blood pressure, and high triglyceride levels.
Another study found that the amount of time you spend sleeping may determine how likely you are to develop cardiovascular disease. The study stated that most people who live in a Westernized civilization only sleep for 6.8 hours a night, which is 1.5 hours less than 100 years ago (3). Data suggested that lack of sleep may increase the risk of certain cardiovascular diseases, including hypertension, coronary artery disease, and diabetes. This is because sleep loss increases activity within the sympathetic nervous system. The study concluded that getting a proper amount of sleep each night is an important preventative measure to take against heart conditions (3).
Sleep loss increases your risk of getting into an accident, which has the potential to cause death. According to the National Sleep Foundation, sleep loss clouds your judgment and thinking so that you make more errors, use poorer judgment, and react slower. You’re also more likely to be unaware that you’re sleep deprived. Sleep-deprived people may be in denial that they can’t do things they normally would after a full night’s rest, such as drive a car or operate heavy machinery.
Studies show that you have more work-related injuries when you’re tired. In fact, you’re 70 percent more likely to get involved in an accident when you’re sleepy compared to when you are well rested (7). People with chronic insomnia are also more liable to get into industrial accidents. If you snore, you’re twice as likely to get into a work accident, according to the National Sleep Foundation. A Swedish study of close to 50,000 people determined that people with sleeping problems were twice as likely to die due to an accident that occurred at work (7).
In 2016, a report from CBS News indicated that even a few hours of sleep loss doubles your risk of a car crash (8). Researchers from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety determined that people who got two hours less than their recommended amount of seven to nine hours within a 24 hour period were twice as likely to get into a car accident. Missing two to three hours of recommended sleep within 24 hours put drivers at a fourfold risk, which is the same risk as someone who has been drinking alcohol (8).
In fact, getting less than five hours of sleep at night makes you as risky on the road as a drunk driver. The report was based on a crash survey of 7,234 drivers and 4,571 accidents. Each accident had at least one vehicle removed from the scene by a tow truck and caused emergency dispatchers to be called to the scene. Investigators determined that sleep loss resulted in more errors by the drivers. Other factors that contributed to the accident included environmental conditions and vehicle mechanical failures (8).
Drivers were asked how many hours of sleep they got 24 hours before getting into the crash. Results concluded that the risk of a car accident increased when drivers got less than seven hours a night. Calculated results were as follows (8):
- Drivers who got six to seven hours of sleep were 1.3 times more likely to crash
- Drivers who got six hours of sleep were 1.9 times more likely to crash
- Drivers who got five hours of sleep were 4.3 times more likely to crash
- Drivers who got less than four hours of sleep were 11.5 times more likely to crash
Drivers in the survey reported that they got less sleep than they normally do. Data shows a positive correlation between sleep loss and increased risk of getting into an accident. The results are as follows:
- Drivers who got one to two hours less sleep than normal were 1.3 times more likely to crash
- Drivers who got three to four hours less sleep than normal were 2.1 times more likely to crash
- Drivers who got four or more hours less sleep than normal were 10.2 times more likely to crash
Surprisingly, half of the drivers who got into an accident reportedly had no symptoms beforehand. This is perhaps the most dangerous side effect of sleep loss.
Can Lack Of Sleep Kill You?
Animal studies dating back to 1989 suggest that sleep deprivation may cause death. One study evaluated the effects of total sleep deprivation on ten rats. Results of the study concluded that all rats died or were put down when death was inevitable. Some rats died within 11 days while others lasted 32 days. Researchers found that the rats did not die from any other cause than sleep deprivation. Before they died, the rats experienced a debilitated appearance. They lost weight despite being fed more calories and developed lesions on their paws and tails. Dehydration was ruled out as researchers took severe measures to keep the rats hydrated (4).
According to an article in Time.com, a Chinese man died from exhaustion after he stayed awake for 11 days to watch every game in the 2012 European Championship soccer games. Reports indicated that the 26-year-old man died from the combined effects of exhaustion and tobacco and alcohol use. He was otherwise healthy and even played soccer for his university’s team several years before the incident. The hospital where the man was treated found that he was in relatively good health otherwise, but he severely damaged his immune system by staying up all night and replacing water with beer (5).
Researchers at the University of California set out to address the ultimate question, “Can you die from lack of sleep?” Results of the research were published in a report by Scientific American. The report indicated that the longest a person has ever stayed awake for is 11 days. Randy Gardner was a 17-year-old high school student at the time. He purposely set the world record as part of a science experiment (6).
Other studies show that people have remained awake for up to ten days during clinical trials. None of the participants suffered any severe medical conditions, but they all had increasing and serious concentration, motivation, perception and mental process defects as time went on. All participants returned to their normal state of health after being allowed to sleep as they normally would for one to two nights. Other reports have indicated that soldiers who were kept awake for four days while in battle experienced mania within three to four days of no sleep (6).
Even if sleep loss doesn’t kill you, it can certainly make you feel like you’re brain dead. According to a Scientific American report, the answer to the question “Can a person die from lack of sleep?” is hard to explain. This is because the definition of being awake is substantially altered after spending many days without sleep. Prolonged sleep loss significantly affects a person’s mental state of consciousness. A person may even experience microsleeps in which their eyes are open, but their brain is not receiving any information. In this sense, Randy Gardner might have been awake, but his mind was clearly not operating as a fully rested brain would.
Researchers at the University of Chicago determined that being continuously awake for two weeks contributed to the death of two rats. Although the cause of death was determined to be whole body hypermetabolism, sleep loss inevitably played a role. In humans, certain disorders can keep you awake longer than you’d like. Morvan’s syndrome or Morvan’s fibrillary chorea is a disorder characterized by chronic pain, excessive sweating, weight loss, muscle twitching, hallucinations, and severe sleep loss. A 27-year-old man in France with the disorder was found to have virtually no sleep over several months. He claimed that he did not feel sleepy or tired during that time. Nor did he show any typical mood, memory or anxiety symptoms that normally accompany sleep loss. However, he reported experiencing severe symptoms every night between 9 pm and 11 pm that lasted for 20 minutes to one hour. During this time, he had auditory, visual, somesthetic and olfactory hallucinations, as well as pain between his toes and fingers (6).
Another disorder called Fatal Familial Insomnia (FFI) that is associated with Mad Cow Disease can cause death after patients experience sleep loss that lasts for six to 30 months. Scientific American stated that the disorder might be misnamed as its sufferers ultimately die from organ failure as opposed to sleep loss. The disorder causes degeneration of particular areas of the brain, which results in fever, tremors, weight loss, overactivation of the sympathetic nervous system, and disruption of the endocrine system (6).
What Should You Do If You Can’t Sleep?
Sleep loss is harder to diagnosis than you think. You may wake up after what appears to be a full night of sleep only to experience daytime impairment that increases your risk of accidents and certain health conditions. If you notice that you haven’t been sleeping well for several nights, stay calm! The worst thing you can do is get upset. High stress and anxiety levels might be the reason you’re not sleeping. In some cases of insomnia, being upset over your sleep loss can prevent you from falling asleep to begin with.
You may want to adjust your sleep routine. If you don’t have one, get one. For some people, it takes up to an hour to calm down before bed. Start the process at dinner by enjoying a light meal that won’t keep you awake. Avoid caffeine and alcohol. Sip on herbal tea instead. After dinner, stay away from electronics as these can keep you awake. Read a book, take a hot bath, or meditate with essential oils. The idea is to be as relaxed as possible before getting into bed.
You probably will not die from lack of sleep. But that doesn’t mean you should purposely deprive yourself of sleep to test your luck. Living in a constant state of sleep deprivation can pose a severe threat to your health. Health experts don’t recommend “cheating” sleep or seeing how little sleep you can live off while trying to get more done in the day. While some people might be able to sleep less than others, most adults should get between seven to nine hours every night. Doing so will ensure that you function at your best every day and get the most out of the hours you spend awake.