I just got back from a 2-week trip to Thailand. While I was there, I never achieved more than 6 hours of sleep per night (as there was plenty to do besides sleep), and on the way back, I experienced a level of sleep deprivation I have never known before.
Maybe you’re one of those supermutants that pulls all-nighters with ease or can sleep on planes, but I’ve never pulled an all-nighter in my life, and to sleep on a plane I’d need someone to pistol whip me out of consciousness, and alas pistols aren’t allowed on planes these days.
This 54 hour bout of sleeplessness (minus a nap during a layover) eventually robbed me of all my faculties.
So let’s talk about this mysterious requirement that I have, that we all have, and what can happen when we don’t get enough of it.
Even though we spend a third of our lives engaged in this activity,
we know surprisingly little about sleep. But what we do know is that it’s really super awesome. For our brain, it’s important for memory and attention, as well as neural development (which is why babies do so much of it). For the rest of the body, sleep is a time that cells do protein synthesis and repair themselves, including immune cells. That’s why getting ample sleep is a great way to avoid getting sick.
We know that people who consistently get less than 6 hours of sleep per night are at risk to develop a whole basket of health problems: cadiovascular disease, hypertension, diabetes, obesity. Because of the fatigue, sleep-impaired people are more likely to be involved in car or work-related accidents. Studies show that the overall cost of healthcare for sleep-challenged individuals is significantly higher than the cost for their sleeping friends.
But don’t try to be a sleep overachiever, either. Studies show that there is a definite bell curve. Too little is definitely not good, but too much sleep is just as bad. People who habitually get more than 9 hours per night have some of the same health risks as insomniacs.
I’m going to rethink my adoration of my weekend ritual of amassing 10 hours of sleep per night.
However, there are people who are true “short sleepers.” They can get less than 6 hours per night and do not develop any negative symptoms. Good for them. Those showoffs.
It seems the Guinness Book of World Records doesn’t currently have an entry for “longest bout without sleep,” but a past record set by Randy Gardner was 264 hours, or 11 days. I certainly won’t be the one to upstage him.
You will indeed die without sleep, but luckily your body simply won’t allow you to do this. Our bodies are pretty talented at getting what they want. If we continually don’t allow ourselves to sleep, eventually the body gives us no choice. Just like in the new Freddy Krueger movie, if you force yourself to stay up long enough, you experience microsleeps, in which the brain electrophysiologically enters a sleep like state, whether you like it or not. I imagine that someone engaging in microsleep resembles me on a Monday.
For several (obvious) reasons, there are no extreme sleep deprivation studies with humans as subjects, but there are some with mice. A mouse lasts about 30 days without sleep and then dies, but there isn’t consensus on the actual cause of death. Does the brain shut down first? Or the heart? Or is it just across the board failure? The scientists who did this study also noted that the mice experienced a shutdown in thermoregulation: their body temperature became completely unstable. Poor little mice.
Since sleep is a complicated brain ballet, there are of course several disorders associated with it. Narcolepsy is a well-known one, in which sufferers fall asleep suddenly. But a lesser known breakdown in the sleep cycle is fatal familial insomnia. The name says it all.
FFI isn’t any kind of regular ol’ I-can’t-sleep insomnia. It’s a prion disease that affects the thalamus, and eventually the brain becomes completely unable to enter a sleep state. But unlike mad cow and other prion diseases (which I discuss in a past post), this prion disorder is genetic. About 40 families and 100 individuals suffer from this disorder worldwide. Onset is usually later in life (around age 50), and the disease lasts about 18 months (depending on the person), with ever-increasing difficulty sleeping, progressing to complete insomnia that eventually causes hallucinations, dementia, coma, and death.
I feel like this is where I should make a joke to lighten the mood, and yet I feel as though my hands are tied.
So now I feel like my 54 hours without sleep perhaps wasn’t so bad, and I’m looking forward to sleeping tonight and fully appreciating it’s awesomeness.
A special thank you to Professor Wincor for taking the time to discuss sleep deprivation with me. I have 3 upcoming posts about other parts of our discussion. I’m very grateful for your help!