Could you stay awake for 11 days? In 1965, Randy Gardner, a 17-year old high school student stayed awake for 11 days and 24 minutes or 264.4 hours, to study the effects of sleep deprivation. This is the longest documented case of intentional sleep deprivation without stimulants. After just 2 days, Randy struggled to remain focused and found it difficult to identify objects through touch. On day three, he showed signs of moodiness, incoordination and hallucinations. Things went down hill from there. Randy became paranoid and irritable, with trouble concentrating and forming short-term memories. By the final day, Randy had slurred speech, no facial expressions; very short attention span and diminished mental abilities. In fact, the physical and mental effects of Randy’s sleep deprivation test were so extreme and dangerous, that the Guinness Book of Records has stopped listing voluntary sleep deprivation. (3)
While Randy’s experiment is an extreme example, sleep deprivation, insomnia and other sleep disorders are at epidemic proportions. According to the American Sleep Association, between 50 to 70 million adults in the United States suffer from a sleep disorder. Approximately 35% of adults report less than 7 hours of sleep during a 24 hour period. The effects of sleep deprivation are far reaching, including death. There are 100,000 deaths each year in hospitals, due to medical errors, in which sleep deprivation is a contributing factor. So, exactly what is sleep deprivation? What causes it? What are the symptoms or physical effects? These are the questions that will be addressed in this article. (2)
According to the medical dictionary, sleep deprivation is defined as “a sufficient lack of restorative sleep over a cumulative period, so as to cause physical or psychiatric symptoms and affect routine performances of tasks.” (7) How much sleep is seen as “sufficient”? This depends on age. According to the American Sleep Association, appropriate sleep totals are as follows: (2)
Why is it that some people sleep well, getting plenty of rest, while others struggle just to fall asleep, much less get 8 solid hours? As it turns out, there are many causes of sleep deprivation. The causes are not simple to isolate and vary from person to person. It can be as simple voluntary deprivation from people who just don’t like to sleep and see it as a waste of time. Other people are simply sleep deprived, unintentionally, due to work, or family obligations. However, in most cases, it is much more complex, and caused by a variety of physical or psychological factors. Psychological factors include stress and depression. There are also a wide ranging number of physical factors including, sleep apnea, hormone imbalance, chronic illness, environmental factors, medicines, improper sleep hygiene and aging. (4,5)
As our mothers and grandmothers told us, we all need our “beauty sleep”. While there is actual research showing that overtired people appear less attractive to others, the physical and psychological effects of sleep deprivation are much more serious than just skin deep. (11) There are some basic symptoms of sleep deprivation, such as yawning, moodiness, fatigue, irritability, forgetfulness, inability to concentrate, increased stress, depression, lack of motivation, low libido and difficulty learning. (4,5) However, the physical effects are actually far reaching, dribbling into many aspects of our physical body. While entire books can be written about the physical effects of sleep deprivation, this article will touch briefly on the most serious ones:
Which comes first, the chicken or the egg? There are many researchers who ask this age old question in relation to the physical effects of sleep deprivation. In other words, does sleep deprivation directly cause these serious physical and psychological conditions or do these conditions cause sleep deprivation.? The jury is still out. What is clear is sleep is a very important part of any health and nutrition regime, and should not be overlooked.
This post was first in a series of monthly articles I am writing, for the Hawthorn University Blog, on insomnia and sleep deprivation. This series will appear, here on my blog, the third Monday each month. Future articles will take an individual look at each one of the physical effects, and delve deeper into the link with sleep deprivation. There will also be articles on the types of insomnia, causes and possible treatments.