Can You Die From Lack of Sleep?

Car accidents, heart attacks, and obesity may take their toll

Not getting enough sleep can increase your risk of early death from accidents, injuries, or health problems. That's because sleep deprivation can have a negative short-term impact on your concentration and mood, and prolonged and recurrent sleep loss has serious health consequences, such as an increased risk of diabetes and heart disease.

sleeping businessman in a car
Manuela Krause / Getty Images

Can You Survive Without Sleep?

If you do not get the amount of sleep you need, even for one night, you might begin to experience the effects of sleep deprivation.

Inadequate sleep causes problems that can include:

  • Headaches
  • Fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Sadness
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Slow physical and mental reaction time
  • Jitteriness

Usually, after getting enough restful sleep for one or two nights, these problems go away.

What Happens to Your Body Without Sleep?

If you only get a few hours of sleep or if you don't get any sleep for several days, severe symptoms can develop—including hallucinations and psychosis.

After a few days without sleep, you are unlikely to die—but you will have trouble staying awake. You may fall asleep no matter what you are doing, even if that sleep isn't as restful as your body needs.

However, severe, chronic sleep deprivation may actually lead to death. This can occur in extremely uncommon disorders such as fatal familial insomnia or sporadic fatal insomnia. These conditions make it physically impossible for a person to get enough sleep. This eventually leads to death.

Consequences of Lack of Sleep

Everyone has certain sleep needs to function normally. The amount of sleep adults need is different from that of children, and one person may need more or less (on average) than another. For adults, the average amount of sleep needed to feel rested is seven to nine hours.

Most of the time, sleep deprivation is an issue of diminished sleep rather than a complete lack of sleep. However, even moderately inadequate sleep can cause problems.

  • Disrupted sleep: Common sleep disorders like sleep apnea or restless leg syndrome cause disrupted sleep.
  • Sleep restriction: Sleep restriction happens if you don't have time to sleep, have insomnia, or can't sleep due to problems like physical pain.

The result of these problems is that you will not get enough restorative sleep. Sleep allows your body to clear toxins and repair to maintain healthy functioning. Over time, if you don't get enough sleep, the biological consequences affect many aspects of your body, mind, and mood.

Accidents

There is a lot of evidence that sleep deprivation increases your risk of having a traffic accident.

Many of the bus, train, airplane, and car accidents that are investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) involve people who are sleep deprived.

Aside from falling asleep behind the wheel, the inattentiveness and loss of concentration that can occur with sleep loss can also be dangerous.

Some studies have shown that sleep deprivation may lead to a level of impairment equivalent to being legally drunk.

In particular, sleeping less than seven hours at night increases the risk of driving accidents. Experiencing poor sleep quality or excessive daytime sleepiness also increase the risk. In addition, driving at night is more likely to result in accidents in individuals who are sleep-deprived.

Injuries and Work Accidents

Work accidents and injuries are more likely to occur overnight. A major risk factor for adverse effects of sleep deprivation involves shift work. Shift workers often sleep fewer hours than they need, and the sleep is often poorly aligned to their natural circadian rhythm.

Some major work-associated disasters have, in part, been blamed on sleep deprivation. A few well-known examples include the grounding of the Exxon Valdez and the resulting oil spill in Alaska, as well as the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

Cardiovascular Disease

Insufficient sleep may increase your risk of cardiovascular disease, including heart attacks. Research has shown that if you sleep less than five hours per night, you are two to three times more likely to have a heart attack.

Sleep loss can have an effect on inflammatory processes in the body. When we don’t sleep enough, blood levels of C-reactive protein, a marker of inflammation, increase. This underlying inflammatory process can damage the blood vessel lining, leading to atherosclerosis (hardening and narrowing of the vessels), strokes, and heart attacks.

Diabetes

Sleep deprivation disrupts your body's metabolism, altering blood glucose (sugar) levels. Over time, this can increase the risk of diabetes or make existing diabetes worse.

The negative impact of sleep deprivation on blood sugar control is believed to be associated with changes in the function of the cells in the pancreas that regulate glucose metabolism.

Obesity

Obesity contributes to the risk of early death because it can lead to numerous health problems—including diabetes, heart disease, lung disease, and cancer. Numerous studies support an association between sleep deprivation and the increased risk of obesity.

Mental Health

Over time, inadequate sleep can take a toll on your mood, potentially causing emotional instability or depression. Depression and anxiety can then contribute to other health consequences, from unhealthy coping behaviors to increased risk of chronic diseases like heart disease—even increased risk of suicide.

The connection between sleep and mood goes the other direction, too: Issues like anxiety are major contributors to insomnia, so the effects on your health can be compounded.

How to Improve Your Sleep

If you aren't getting enough sleep, there are many things you can do to get better sleep. The approach is dependent on the cause. You might already know why you aren't getting enough sleep, or you may need to speak to a healthcare professional about it.

For example, many people have habits that keep them awake. For example, staying up late on social media will result in exhaustion, possibly napping during the day, and then staying up late again. Regulating your schedule could be the solution.

Work and family responsibilities are other causes of sleep deprivation. Consider talking to your healthcare provider about whether you should see a therapist to work on adjusting your priorities so you can get better rest.

Medical and psychological problems, such as pain, sleep apnea, depression, and more will require treatment and guidance from a health care professional.

Research has led to important safety regulations when it comes to work-related sleep deprivation, especially with long-haul truck drivers. For shift workers, sleep patterns should be adjusted so that sleep and wake times are consistent.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Will your body eventually force you to sleep?

Yes, if you haven't had enough sleep, you will fall asleep. Sleep latency (the time it takes you to fall asleep) is impacted by how much your body needs to sleep.

 Can a lack of sleep cause brain cells to die?

Not directly. But sleep helps your body remove harmful waste material, and when you don't get enough sleep, it is believed that these toxins could damage your body (including the functioning of your brain) over the long term.

How long does it take to recover from sleep deprivation?

Normally, it only takes one or two days to recover from the short-term problems caused by sleep deprivation. Some of the problems caused by long-term sleep deprivation, such as heart disease, might not improve and could require long-term medical management.

A Word From Verywell

Aside from the risk of death in rare medical conditions that cause extreme sleep deprivation, a lack of sleep could lead to potentially fatal accidents or injuries. Chronic sleep deprivation can contribute to early death, too, by increasing the risk of chronic health conditions. A lack of sleep is a problem you should take seriously. If you aren't getting enough sleep, talk to your healthcare provider about what you can do to improve it.

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