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Can You Die From Not Sleeping? Yes, Here’s Why

Directly or indirectly, lack of sleep can lead to death. And don’t discount the effects of sleep loss that can feel like death and make it hard to function.
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Jeff Kahn, M.S., Rise Science Co-Founder
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We regularly update our articles to explain the latest research and shifts in scientific consensus in a simple and actionable way.

It’s a terrible — and for many of us, terribly familiar — feeling. Your head aches. You’re irritable and moody. You can barely think — much less focus, communicate effectively, or get things done. You feel drunk, but not in a good way. And you are definitely not having fun.

Have you ever been so tired and sleep deprived that you felt like you might actually die? Well, what if we told you that within that feeling lies a grain of truth: You can die from not sleeping. 

Some animal studies show a direct link between sleep deprivation and death. And we know heart disease and some of the other serious health consequences associated with chronic sleep deprivation can be fatal. If you needed one more reason to make sleep a priority, the increased probability of a premature death is hard to ignore.

In this article, we’ll explore: 

  • The links between sleep deprivation and death
  • The serious consequences of high sleep debt
  • The difference between acute sleep debt and chronic sleep debt
  • Tips for paying down your sleep debt

Improving your sleep can fundamentally improve your health, longevity, and how you feel on a daily basis. Better sleep equals better days.

Can You Die From Not Sleeping?

Sleep is so vital to our overall health that it’s something that we literally cannot live without, just like food, air, and water.

Animal research points to evidence of a direct link between sleep deprivation and death. A 1989 study found that total, prolonged sleep deprivation inevitably leads to death in rats. Another study, this time on sleep-deprived fruit flies, found a causal link between sleep deprivation and premature death. 

Examples of death via sleep deprivation in humans are understandably scant. But a rare hereditary disease called fatal familial insomnia (FFI) seems to prove that total lack of sleep can indeed lead to death. People with FFI suffer from mild insomnia that quickly progresses into a complete inability to sleep and ultimately leads to death. Patients typically survive for an average of 18 months after diagnosis.  

The fact that FFI is a neurodegenerative disease does make it somewhat less viable as evidence of a direct link between sleep deprivation and death. However, there is a lot of overlap between symptoms of FFI and the effects of sleep deprivation many of us have experienced — from cognitive decline to short-term memory problems and difficulty focusing. 

Lack of Sleep Plays a Role in Many Deaths

Can you die from not sleeping: tired man driving

It’s probably safe to say that "lack of sleep" is not something medical examiners commonly list as an official cause of death. But what about motor vehicle accidents, cancer, and heart disease — the three leading causes of death among American adults? Can severe sleep deprivation contribute to those fatalities? Unfortunately, yes.

But there are two different categories of sleep deprivation or sleep debt — acute and chronic — each with its own set of symptoms and effects. But it’s possible to be both acutely and chronically sleep deprived simultaneously. Simply put, sleep deprivation happens when you don’t get enough sleep, and sleep debt is a way of measuring and categorizing sleep deprivation.

Acute Sleep Debt 

Acute sleep debt is the running total of the hours of sleep you missed — as compared to the amount of sleep your body needed — over the past 14 days. It’s the number that best predicts how you feel and perform during the day, and it’s the main focus of the RISE app.

In order to feel and perform at or near your best, we recommend keeping your sleep debt below five hours. Your sleep debt goes up as more sleep loss piles up, and the effects will get progressively worse. As an extreme example of these effects, let’s take a look at a well-documented case of prolonged sleep deprivation.

In 1964, 17-year-old Randy Gardner from San Diego set a world record by going without sleep for 11 days and 25 minutes. The experiment he’d planned to enter as a project for his school science fair soon caught the attention of Stanford sleep researcher William Dement, who flew to San Diego to help monitor and document the effects of total sleep deprivation experienced by Gardner.

In addition to being extremely sleepy, after two days of wakefulness, Gardner had trouble focusing and began having difficulty identifying objects purely by touch. After three days, he was moody and uncoordinated. In the week that followed, Gardner became irritable and paranoid. His speech was slurred, his mental abilities diminished, and he started hallucinating. 

Sure, this is an extreme example, but you don’t have to stay awake for days on end, or even just a few hours past your normal bedtime, to experience some of the common symptoms of acute sleep debt.  

Effects of Acute Sleep Debt

The negative effects of acute sleep debt include:

  • Increased sleepiness, moodiness, irritability, and impatience
  • Decreased cognitive abilities, attention span, and productivity
  • A weakened immune system
  • Changes in metabolism and appetite
  • Increased risk of accidents

In terms of fatalities caused by acute sleep debt, it’s easy to see how car crashes and other accidents pose the highest risk. According to Matthew Walker, author of Why We Sleep, the human brain’s “recycle rate" is around 16 hours. After that, the brain is no longer working optimally. Studies show that after only 17 hours of wakefulness, our reaction time and other cognitive abilities will decline. 

And when you go 18 hours without sleeping, your level of cognitive impairment is basically the same as someone with a blood alcohol level (BAC) of 0.05%. For reference, that’s the legal limit for driving in many countries. 

Falling asleep at the wheel is indeed a dangerous and widespread problem. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that drowsy driving causes about 100,000 crashes with more than 1,550 fatalities and 71,000 injuries each year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 15-33% of fatal car accidents involve drowsy drivers. These accidents are often attributed to microsleeps, brief involuntary episodes of unconsciousness or partial unconsciousness usually caused by insufficient sleep.

The effects of acute sleep debt can even mimic symptoms of low-level brain damage. Researchers at Ohio State found that sleep loss can resemble symptoms of a concussion. And if you pull an all-nighter, you’ll experience cognitive impairment equivalent to having a BAC of 0.10%, which is over the legal limit for driving in all 50 states.

But the effects of sleep debt can also creep up on you. For example, if your sleep need is eight hours and you go 10 consecutive nights of getting just seven hours of sleep per night, your brain will suffer the same level of impairment as it would after 24 hours of being awake.

Chronic Sleep Deprivation

Can you die from not sleeping: patient in a hospital bed

People who go for years or decades rarely meeting their sleep need and without ever really paying down the debt have what is considered chronic sleep debt. The health problems and medical conditions associated with chronic sleep deprivation can be very serious and often fatal. 

Effects of Chronic Sleep Deprivation

  • Greater risk of high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease/heart disease, and heart attack
  • Higher risk of certain cancers
  • Increased risk for weight gain, obesity, and Type 2 diabetes
  • More susceptible to fertility problems and mental health disorders

After reading through that list of serious ailments, the connection between chronic sleep debt and premature death is not hard to make.

Are You Torturing Yourself by Not Sleeping?

Although most of us probably won’t die from sleep deprivation, if you frequently deprive yourself of the sleep your body needs, the immediate effect is feeling like death — full-body misery. 

Sleep deprivation has been used as a torture technique as far back as 17th century England and as recently as the early 2000s on detainees in Guantanamo Bay. Fortunately, most people will never be subject to that kind of torture. 

Yet many of us are all too familiar with the misery of being sleep deprived. But why? If we are (for the most part) in control of our schedules — why do we continue to deprive ourselves of sleep? Are we torturing ourselves? Probably not intentionally, but the real answer may be more nuanced. 

To be at the top of your game, you need to prioritize sleep. On some level, most of us know that. So why do so many of us continue to deprive ourselves of sleep on a regular basis? Odds are, it’s a good deal of good intentions combined with misconceptions and mixed motivations. See if you recognize your own rationale in one or more of the statements below.

  • If I sleep less, I can use those hours to get things done and be more productive: Nope. In fact, a lack of sleep will undermine your productivity. Research shows that insufficient sleep leads to significantly worse productivity, performance, and safety outcomes. If you want to perform at the highest levels, meeting your sleep need matters.

  • I’ll sacrifice sleep to spend extra time with family and friends because my relationships are more important than my sleep: Can you say “backfire”? Yes, quality time is important. But if staying out until the wee hours for date night means you’ll be underslept and cranky the following day(s), your loved ones would probably prefer to stick with the well-rested version of you.

  • I really don’t need that much sleep, and I’m fine functioning on four hours a night: Pure delusion. Scientists estimate that less than 5% of people have a genetic mutation that allows them to function on less than six hours of sleep per night. On average, we need 8 hours and 10 minutes of sleep (give or take 44 minutes), and a not-insignificant percentage of the population needs 9 hours or more. You may feel like you’re doing pretty well after just four or five hours of sleep, but your cognitive capacity, emotional stability, and physiological functioning have been downgraded. Study after study shows we adapt subjectively to sleep loss, while objectively we're in severe decline across every metric that matters to us.

  • I’ve learned how to hack my sleep, so I can sleep four hours and get the benefit of eight: You just can’t hack it. Maybe a company peddling the promise of magical sleep sold you a pricey herbal supplement or cooling mattress. But that’s just misleading marketing. Bottom line: There is no product that can make up for lost sleep. The power of sleep is in the hours of sleep.

Feel Better When You Pay Down Your Debt  

Woman happily sleeping in her bed

From cognitive decline and feeling miserable to putting yourself at an increased risk of developing or exacerbating serious health conditions — the consequences of sleep deprivation are no joke. And there is no magical cure. To pay down your sleep debt, you can start by making gradual changes toward getting the right amount of sleep each night. And the RISE app can help.

Using sleep and activity data already stored in your phone, the RISE app will automatically calculate your personal sleep need and your current sleep debt. The app also displays your Energy Schedule, which tells you the timing of the predictable peaks and dips in energy you experience throughout the day, including your Melatonin Window. Setting your bedtime so that it aligns with your Melatonin Window will make it easier to fall asleep and stay asleep at night so you can feel good during the day. 

You have to outsleep your sleep need to pay down sleep debt, and it may not happen overnight. But the RISE app will help you keep track of your progress as you aim to get your sleep debt under five hours. 

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Once you get your sleep debt down, there’s no need to stress over occasional sleep disturbances or worry that one night of poor sleep will erase all your progress. You can get back on track with incremental adjustments to your sleep schedule. 

Go to bed 15-20 minutes earlier for a few nights to pay down the debt over the next week or two. Or if you feel drowsy during the day, take a little snooze. The best time of day to take a nap is during the afternoon dip indicated on your Energy Schedule. Eventually, you’ll be able to make up for the sleep you missed and enjoy the benefits. 

The Sleep You Need for the Life You Want

Getting the sleep your body needs on a consistent basis can improve your mood, performance, and physical health. It may sound overly simple, but the best way to avoid the effects of sleep deprivation is to stick to a consistent sleep-wake schedule that allows you to meet your sleep need every night. 

In the short term, getting sufficient sleep is not always life or death, but it can definitely be the difference between enjoying your life and feeling like you’re dying. Over the long term, keeping your sleep debt low — may help you avoid some of the negative health effects associated with chronic sleep debt. The RISE app can help you keep track of your progress toward lowering your sleep debt, so you can reap the benefits of better sleep. Because your best self is a well-rested self.

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