Death by Insomnia

Can you die from sleeplessness?

Posted May 14, 2010

Is it really true? Can you die from sleeplessness?

If you happened to watch the National Geographic Channel last month, you might have caught sight of a special on Fatal Familiar Insomnia (FFI)—a deadly form of insomnia that runs in some families.

Don’t panic. This condition is extremely rare, so rare that it has just been named and is currently under study around the world. It is only known to be in 40 families, affecting about 100 people worldwide. What we know about this disease is:

  • The disease is based on a protein abnormality, when a protein called a prion attacks the thalamus.
  • It’s genetically inherited and passed down through generations.
  • The first sign of FFI is sleeplessness, followed by continued insomnia with hallucinations and panic attacks, progressing to total insomnia and weight loss, which then progresses until the victim is so sleep deprived that his or her systems shut down until death occurs.
  • In one particular case (chronicled on the television program), a man developed the disease in his fifties after having slept pretty well throughout his life, which is common for this disease.
  • Then his troubles with sleep snowballed to the point where his body wouldn’t let him rest. He died within months

Stories like this remind us that sleep remains a mystery still waiting to be fully understood. But the average person doesn’t carry the gene for FFI and will have a hard time (impossible, really) sleep depriving him or herself to death.  Remember, there only 40 families known in the world that have FFI -  and it is certainly heartbreaking for those families.  But what this tragic illness shows us is the most severe affect sleep deprivation can have on the human body

It is true that the research shows that consistently sleeping fewer than 6 hours a night increases your risk for a variety of diseases such as colon cancer, breast cancer, heart disease, obesity, and diabetes (and perhaps getting run over by a bus because you can’t focus or pay attention).  Lack of sleep can lead to poor health - but you are not going to be able to intentionally sleep deprive yourself to death.

According to The Guinness World Records, Randy Gardner set the record back in 1964 when as a 17-year-old he went 11 consecutive days (264 hours) without sleep. After staving off sleep for a few days with cold showers, playing basketball and listening to loud music (not to mention media reporters and games of pinball), he could no longer focus his eyes and had to give up TV. His speech slurred, and he fell into a silent stupor.

But he didn’t die soon after.  And he did sleep more than usual for a few nights when he finally went to sleep.

We now believe that long sleepless stints like Randy’s can be dangerous. He appears to have paid back his sleep debt by getting extra sleep for a few nights. And remember, he was a teenager.

The moral of the story: You can go for a period of time without quality sleep, and experience the consequences. And you can recover if you allow your body to recoup those lost hours again.  But regularly and consistently failing to get the sleep your body needs is just plain unhealthy, and will have long-term consequences on the quality of your health and your life.

And please don’t try to make into the Guinness World Records by breaking Gardner’s record.  Guinness doesn’t keep records for voluntary sleep deprivation anymore – they decided it was too dangerous.

Sweet Dreams,

Michael J. Breus, PhD
The Sleep Doctor™