Can a person's body shut down and die after prolonged lack of sleep and if so, how long will it take? Sleep scientists don't know for sure how long normal people can survive without sleep, according to a Scientific American review. There are no research studies from which to draw a definite conclusion.
Prolonged Sleep Deprivation and Death
Scientists know sleep is essential, but they don't know for certain what purpose it serves. Therefore, they don't know what body functions lack of sleep can harm that might lead to death.
Some insight into the effect of prolonged sleep deprivation on health and survival comes from a few experiments on normal people and lab rats, and a few non-experimental claims.
Planned Human Experiments
Based on the Scientific American article, there are only a handful of monitored sleep experiments where the study subject stayed awake for hours. The first reported example was a high school student in 1965 who deprived himself of sleep for 11 days as a science fair experiment. In other experiments, the subject stayed awake for eight to ten days.
No one died in any of the cases, and none suffered any major physical or mental illnesses. However, they had impairments that started small but worsened with each day of sleep deprivation. Problems included confusion, diminished perception, concentration, and memory, as well as hallucinations, all of which later recovered after the experiment ended.
There is a report of a Chinese man who died after 11 days of no sleep. However, his heavy drinking and smoking during those days may have contributed to his death.
There are also sporadic claims of normal people surviving without sleep for years.
- One is the case of a Vietnamese man who, at the time of a newspaper report in 2004, had gone 33 years of total insomnia and showed no ill-effects.
- Another was the report of a Ukrainian man who by 2005 had already survived 20 years of sleeplessness.
There are other reported cases of people who died after some months of insomnia. However, they had an underlying medical diagnosis, such as fatal familial insomnia, which might have been the real cause of death rather than the insomnia itself.
In a series of studies reported in 1995 in Behavioural Brain Research, the lab rats died in about two weeks of chronic sleep deprivation. The prolonged lack of sleep caused derangements in some physiologic functions including heat regulation, but the ultimate cause of death was not clear.
Effects of Insomnia on Health
Sleep deprivation can cause death indirectly such as by motor a vehicle accident while driving after not enough sleep. Although insomnia might not kill directly, sleep is important for a sense of physical and mental well-being. Lack of sleep is a huge stress on the body and can shorten your lifespan through chronic disease and illnesses.
People with repetitive short daily sleeps or periods of prolonged insomnia are at greater risk for developing medical problems that increase the chance of dying early. The stress of sleep deprivation can cause a chronic state of increased stress hormones. This can depress immunity and increase inflammation throughout the body and raise the risk for high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke, diabetes, obesity or weight loss, and cancers.
Symptoms of Extreme Sleep Deprivation.
Lack of sleep can make it harder for people to think clearly, function, and get things done. Symptoms and signs of sleep deprivation can include:
- Chronic fatigue, drowsiness, and brain fog
- Impaired judgement, perception, focus and coordination
- Difficulty with memory and concentration
- Slower reaction time
- Prone to moodiness, anxiety, depression
The longer a person goes without sleep the worse these symptoms can get and hallucinations and psychosis can develop.
It's not known how long you can go without sleep before the deprivation kills you. However, prolonged lack of sleep can make you sick and might decrease your lifespan. Examine your lifestyle and try to make adjustments that can improve the length and quality of your sleep. Go see our doctor if you need help to make improvements or to treat a sleep disorder.