This might seem obvious to some but we believe it's important to get our terminology straight! According to the NIH, sleep deprivation just means that you're not getting enough sleep. So, if you need 9 hours of sleep and you're consistently getting 8, you're sleep deprived.
Sleep deficiency on the other hand includes sleep deprivation along with other factors such as: sleeping at the wrong time (during the day instead of at night, for example), not getting the right kind of sleep (REM vs deep sleep for example), and sleep disorders. So, these two terms are not interchangeable.
Lastly, you have insomnia, which is a sleep disorder. It can contribute to sleep deprivation or sleep deficiency but once again, it's not interchangeable with those terms. It's important to make this difference because if we say “Sleep deficiency can cause X”, that doesn't mean you necessarily have to be awake all night in order to be at risk.
Now that we know the terminology, let's get into some specifics. According to the Cleveland Clinic, these are the symptoms typically associated with prolonged sleep deprivation:
And while this might already seem pretty bad, this isn't the end of it. In fact, these are the milder symptoms. But if you're suffering from severe sleep deprivation, the following symptoms can start popping up:
And it's worth keeping in mind that these are just the symptoms of total sleep deprivation. In other words, we still aren't done. After all, there's a difference between not sleeping two nights in a row and consistently getting 4 hours of sleep over the span of a few years.
As we've mentioned, there's a difference between not sleeping for a few nights and when it's a long-term problem. So, when you have chronic sleep deprivation or some other form of sleep deficiency, here are the potential symptoms:
And, all of these conditions can be fatal in certain situations. However, sleep loss on this level isn't too common and the thing that gets you in the end is indirect. But can complete or partial sleep deprivation directly kill someone?
As it currently stands, we couldn't find any reports of a person dying as a direct cause of sleep deprivation. And, let us be clear, we're talking about confirmed and undeniable reports of death. So, if you remember a horror story or urban myth along those lines, don't worry, we'll talk about those separately.
And if there's a story that you know of someone passing away from sleep deprivation, let us know down in the comments. All of that being said, it's not hard to imagine how a lack of sleep can lead to premature death in certain situations. For example:
So, in this way, you don't have to get a cardiovascular disease in order to be put in danger from sleep deprivation. However, while sleep deprivation increases the odds of fatal accidents, we still can't claim that it can directly kill someone.
When talking about the potential dangers of sleep deprivation, those who were around in the early days of the internet might remember the Russian Sleep Experiment. The story went that five people were forced to stay awake for five entire days, after being exposed to a gas that renders them unable to fall asleep.
However, within a few weeks, the five men had seemingly lost their minds and both their mental and physical health had completely deteriorated. However, has any of this actually happened?
Well, from what we could find, it seems very unlikely. However, that doesn't mean that scientists haven't tried similar experiments on animals. And if you really love animals, this might seem just as gruesome as the original experiment. So, skip the following paragraph if you don't want to read about animals being harmed.
Even a quick Google search will show you that scientists have been examining the consequences of poor sleep in animals for quite some time. For example, while they didn't experiment on humans, a Russian scientist did look at how inadequate sleep affected puppies. And they concluded that a complete absence of sleep was fatal in their test subjects.
With that being said, this experiment was carried out in the late 1800s, so, the tools they had at their disposal were less than ideal. We can, however, see a more modern experiment of a similar nature done by Harvard.
And don't worry, no puppies were harmed this time around. Rather, they looked at sleep-deprived fruit flies. And the conclusion was rather fascinating. Namely, they found that what killed the flies wasn't the lack of sleep itself but rather a spike in the concentration of ROS molecules in the gut.
And this was far from a guess. This is because, when given something to neutralise the ROS levels, the fruit flies continued flying around even after days with no sleep! So, it would seem that lost sleep is only connected to our gut. However, more research needs to be done.
Although not nearly as popular as the Russian Sleep Experiment, some of you might have also heard of the condition Fatal Familial Insomnia. And since it has both the words fatal and insomnia, we wouldn't judge you for assuming it was a death caused by a lack of sleep.
However, that is not the case. FFI is an extremely rare disorder that makes it so that the person affected has a lot of difficulty falling asleep. It usually starts off as mild insomnia but can get worse over time. And while there is no cure, seeing a sleep specialist can help ease some of the symptoms.
Although the exact number might differ depending on where you read about it, Guinness World Records recognises Robert McDonald as the person who has spent the longest time awake. And their record is a whopping 453 hours 40 minutes.
But if you read their article on the topic, you'll see that Robert was not the only one to have attempted it! In fact, in the 20th century a whole slew of people, mostly DJs funnily enough, took turns staying awake for days on end.
But where there any side effects? Well, there were obvious symptoms, such as hallucinations and impaired cognitive abilities. In the beginning, it was also believed that not sleeping for so long would lead to psychosis. However, most of the record-holders showed little to no side effects of sleep deprivation later on in life.
So, while there were many factors at play and the individuals involved claimed that it was a harrowing experience – there don't seem to be any long-term effects. However, that doesn't mean that getting insufficient sleep is something you should strive for, as it can still cause other health problems.
As we've mentioned already, going without sleep isn't always a decision (unless you were a DJ in the 1900s). And unfortunately, quite a few things can cause sleep deprivation or sleep deficiency. For example:
And so on. Therefore, it can be difficult to avoid sleep deficiency for some people. Even just avoiding sleep debt (which is a lot milder) can be tough! And it's not like you can just snap your fingers and stop Restless Leg Syndrome or suddenly not feel stressed.
That's why it's so important to know what you're dealing with and to consult a professional when things start going sideways. So, even if you're currently fine, read up on sleep hygiene and see whether you're getting the most optimal sleep that you can!
It's no secret that sleep is very important. It helps our brain develop and a lack of sleep can cause certain cognitive issues. And as we've now learned, a lack of sleep can actually affect an animal's gut and lead to premature death! However, can you die from lack of sleep? Only indirectly.