Sleepless nights caused by sleep deprivation or insomnia can lead to a lot of thinking and overthinking, often the latter. It’s no secret that insomniacs have a lot of problems falling asleep and as a result of that, a lot of people have difficulties focusing on their day-to-day activities like school, work, and even their general lifestyle.
As a result of that, people are often disrupting their lifestyle, which leads to different mental disorders. The question that arises, however, is can you die from insomnia? Are the consequences of it so dreadful that it can turn out to be fatal?
Before we look at the scientific studies and research, let’s see what insomnia is really, and how does it connect to our daily functions.
What is Insomnia?
There are a lot of definitions of insomnia, but almost universally, insomnia is the inability to stay asleep and thus attain an adequate amount of sleep and rest to go on about your daily responsibilities. It can happen for various reasons but most commonly it refers to the inability to fall asleep or stay asleep. In some situations, a person may not have difficulties falling asleep, but staying asleep instead.
If you’re lucky enough, the state of insomnia shouldn’t last long. It can happen as a result of a sudden stressful event or other tense situation. In such cases, the person recovers from it within two days to a week and other than the clear annoyance of being unable to sleep, there are no other issues.
However, insomnia can last longer, and then it requires changes in daily and sleeps hygiene which will improve the symptoms. If the adjustment of lifestyle won’t work, it often requires professional treatment because otherwise it can lead to certain health problems and maximize symptoms of other conditions.
Types of insomnia:
- Acute insomnia – the condition lasts for a day to three days.
- Chronic insomnia – Can last from a few weeks to three months.
- Onset insomnia – Difficulty falling asleep.
- Maintenance insomnia – Waking up several times throughout the night.
- Comorbid insomnia – Condition which is usually connected to another disorder like depression.
Insomnia vs. Sleep Deprivation
Before going through the rest of the article, it’s extremely important to highlight the difference between sleep deprivation and insomnia, as both sleeping conditions can be extremely misleading when compared.
It’s a situation where a person decides to lay off their sleep hygiene for several reasons. It’s a conscious giving up of sleep so that people can tend to some other activities be it work, studying, or any other activity.
There are events where sleep deprivation has shown no harm to people who’ve rested adequately after finishing their obligations. Besides, it’s unlikely to see someone giving up their sleep for an extended period.
A study performed on rats in 1989 saw them sleep-deprived for two to three weeks. However, complete sleep deprivation caused the rats to die.
Randy Gardner, 17-years old student in San Diego is a person with the longest medically-approved case of sleep deprivation. He was preparing for a dance competition in 1964, which led to him staying awake for 11 days straight in his preparations.
Fortunately, he didn’t suffer any side effects of sleep deprivation other than tiredness and exhaustion.
Still, after 14 hours of sleep, he completely recovered.
There are even hints of longer sleep deprivation, but given that complete sleep deprivation of rats led to their death, scientists aren’t too keen on experimenting with this.
Humans have never been experimented with as a result of these findings. Still, some estimates tell us that humans should be able to survive from two to ten years of total sleep deprivation.
It’s important to note that indirect and side factors don’t account for this. The sleep deprivation can affect our ability to focus and our brain to perform its cognitive functions. Such errors can lead to injuries, car accidents, drowning, and other reasons.
On the contrary, this is the consequence of excess brain activity at the time we should be sleeping. The activity is so high that our body and mind are unable to relax and fall asleep.
Sleep Deprivation can be a consequence of insomnia, where the condition has kept us awake through the night and rid us of our sleep.
However, the two conditions are not the same. Insomnia is the most common sleep disorder and luckily for many, it can be treated easily with slight changes in sleep hygiene.
Health Effects of Insomnia
The sleep phenomenon has always been baffling to the experts. Still, it’s no secret that insomnia can have a lot of consequences to our day to day life.
Many experts believe that we need sleep to restore our cells, bones, muscles, and more importantly our cognitive functions. Still, a lot of scientists question the reasoning behind the evolutionary aspect of sleep, and why we haven’t grown beyond it.
A lot of studies suggest that humans spend about 1/3 of their life sleeping, so it’s an important thing towards our cognitive functions and genetics.
Acute insomnia which can last for a few days or a little longer is usually not having any consequences to our health, except for the sleep deprivation we’ll sleep. In the longer run, chronic insomnia can have health consequences, both physically and mentally.
The first side effect we’ll notice is focused as a result of the daytime sleepiness. You may find difficulties focusing at school, at work, at an event, during a drive, or some reason. In the long run, there are a lot more risks compared to daytime tiredness.
The physical effects of insomnia are:
- Immune system decay
- Low pain sensitivity
- High blood pressure
- Cardiovascular diseases
Given that long-term insomnia often leaves us tired and exhausted, it’s important to note the following mental conditions that arise as a result of insomnia:
Finally, there is attention and focus risks that can leave us exposed to accidents. With that in mind, insomnia can affect our memory, focus, libido, and judgment.
Can You Die From Insomnia?
While there are no direct causes of insomnia-caused death in people, a lot of studies suggest that it does have an impact on life expectancy.
There was an analysis of over 16 scientific studies which covered over one million people finding over 112,000 deaths that were influenced by sleep duration. Also, sleeping less led to a 12% rise in the risk of death as opposed to people who practiced regular sleep hygiene.
The most prominent study which looks into the death of insomnia was conducted by the University of Arizona, where 40-year long research found that people who suffered from chronic insomnia had 58% higher risk from premature death.
Those who are most exposed to chronic insomnia likely died from respiratory or heart failure.
The study suggests that insomnia-caused sleep deprivation of only one night is equal to the person who was intoxicated, making them as disrupted and impaired.
Insomnia indirectly can affect death, as mentioned above. That is a result of disrupted focus. However, the most direct cause of death as a result of insomnia is fairly rare and is a consequence of a rare disease called fatal familial insomnia, which is a genetic condition. The condition is extremely rare and can be found in a small number of people.
What is Fatal Familial Insomnia?
A genetically-influenced and rare sleep disorder known as Fatal familial insomnia (FFI) attacks the thalamus (a small brain structure that is in charge of our motor sensors and functions.) Thalamus is also responsible for controlling our sleep so the FFI manifests itself as intense insomnia that won’t go away. Given its name, the condition has truly proved itself to be fatal, with those diagnosed dying one to two years after being diagnosed.
One of the main effects of this extremely rare sleep disorder that has only a small portion of people, includes dementia as well as speech and motor problems. An even rarer condition of this same disease is called sporadic fatal insomnia with only 24 documented cases up to 2016. This condition puzzled a lot of doctors and other medical experts, and while opinions are many, they believe that the latter variant of the condition isn’t influenced genetically.
While the disease will result in death from one to two years, it depends on the health of the person and how healthy they are. That said, this period may either be shorter or quite longer. It’s classified in the prion disease, which is extremely rare and results in the death of nerve cells in the brain. FFI is considered one of the rarest prion diseases.
- Difficulty falling and staying asleep
- Muscle spasms
- Eye twitching
- Physical activity while sleeping
- Loss of appetite
- Deteriorating cognitive functions
- Confusion and loss of coordination
- Difficulty speaking and swallowing
- Weight loss
Experts still don’t know what exactly causes this condition, but most likely it’s the mutation of the PRNP gene. As a result, the mutated gene affects the function of the thalamus and it becomes unable to control and improve your sleep cycle.
Finally, your brain is unable to achieve communication between the different parts of it. As a result of the loss of nerve cells, experts sort it into progressive neurodegenerative diseases. That loss manifests through the mentioned symptoms above.
How to Treat FFI?
At the moment, there’s no adequate treatment or cure for this condition. However, experts around the world are conducting the studies and searching for the cure.
While the prognosis is not yet bright, sleep medication provides a temporary solution to this problem, making sleeping for the patients easier. However, as the symptoms progress and worsen, even sleep medication is unable to help.
There is an interesting animal study conducted in 2016 where one of the suggested treatments includes immunotherapy. The researchers need to conduct additional research, including the ones with human participants to ensure that these claims are valid.
Another study, which involves human participation that sees doxycycline as one of the solutions. It’s an antibiotic that may prevent FFI in people who may have genetic predispositions before they get diagnosed with it. More research is required, however.
How to Live With FFI?
While the FFI may affect mostly older or aged populations, it’s important to know whether the disease runs in the family. The reason for that is the fact that symptoms rapidly get worse and people start to lose their cognitive functions in a short time. If it runs in the family, it’s important to think of strategies in preventing insomnia in itself to reduce the chances of getting FFI. The symptoms progressively get grim within a year and are eventually fatal.
To conclude, while sleep deprivation and insomnia won’t kill you, it’s important to maintain the healthy sleep hygiene as it improves your life expectancy and protects you from eventual incidents that could prove fatal due to being sleep-deprived and exhausted. Insomnia can, in rare situations, progress to fatal familial insomnia, a genetically-influenced but rare sleep disorder which sees the symptoms worsening and resulting in death in a year to two.
Practice healthy sleep hygiene and consult with your family and doctor in case someone died from this condition. Some studies may eventually lead towards a trustworthy cure, but at the moment there’s only a short-term relief through sleeping pills.