It may be a legitimate form of torture, but can you actually perish from a lack of sleep? One subject endeavoured to find out.
If you think you feel tired, cast a thought to Randy Gardner who once set a record for staying awake for more than 11 days!
Gardner’s ordeal was, however, a gift to science because upon hearing of this science experiment by the then 17-year-old Gardner, psychiatrist, William C Dement from Stanford University jumped on board to observe and record the brain patterns that occurred.
What the researchers found was that after just 48 hours of staying awake, Gardner’s eyes lost their ability to focus properly, he became unable to recognise some objects via touch, and he failed to repeat simple tongue twisters. By day three, he became uncoordinated and moody, and by day five hallucinations commenced. Soon after, Gardner experienced concentration troubles, his short-term memory formation suffered, and he began to feel irritable and even paranoid.
At times during the study, researchers noted that different parts of Gardner’s brain shut down to rest, even though he appeared fully awake. This may hold the secret to why previous tests on animals – which suggested a lack of sleep could eventuate in death – did not occur in humans.
Now aged almost 70, Gardner seemingly has not incurred any mental or physical defects as a result of the experiment, which is intriguing, given that today there are widely known consequences from long-term attempts at trying to function on less sleep than our body requires. High blood pressure, adrenal burnout, hormone fluctuations and weight gain are just some of the potential consequences of continuously failing to get the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep a night.
In the US, 30% of adults and 66% of teenagers are reported to be regularly sleep-deprived. Here in Australia, it’s believed that 39.8% are functioning on insufficient sleep, which comes at a cost of $66.3 billion dollars – $40.1 billion of which is said to be in lost wellbeing.
A report by the Sleep Health Foundation linked more than 3,017 deaths in 2016-2017 to inadequate sleep, 394 of which occurred due to industrial accidents or because someone fell asleep while driving a vehicle.
Karyn O’Keefe from the Sleep/Wake Research Centre at Massey University in New Zealand said, “With respect to risk of work-related injury, a large US study has shown that workers who got less than 5 hours’ sleep per day were 2.7 times more likely to have a work-related injury than those who got 7 to 7.9 hours’ sleep.”
She added, “In the long-term, lack of sleep has been shown to lead to problems with physical health, such as increased risk for obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and stroke, as well as increased risk for depression and anxiety.”
So although staying awake for a long period of time – just once – may result in a Guinness World Record, and may not result in any long term damage to your health, it’s highly likely that consistently depriving your body of adequate rest will cause some type of health and wellbeing deficit; so best you try and get a good night’s shut eye as often as you can.