Sleep is very important for every living thing. We cannot function without it. Ever wondered what happens if you go on without sleeping? If you stay awake all the time? In 1965, 17-year-old high school student did just that! Randy Gardner stayed awake for 264 hours. That is whole 11 days just to see how he’d cope without sleep.
On the second day, his eyes stopped focusing. After that, he lost the ability to identify objects by touch. By the third day, Gardner was uncoordinated and moody. Near the end of the experiment, he was struggling to concentrate and had trouble with his short-term memory. He also became paranoid, and started hallucinating. Although Randy Gardner recovered without long-term psychological or physical damage, others aren’t so lucky. Losing shuteye can result in hormonal imbalance, illness, and, in extreme cases, death. We’re only beginning to understand why we sleep to begin with, but we do know it’s very essential. Adolescents need about ten hours of sleep a night, and adults need seven to eight. We grow sleepy due to signals from our body telling our brain that we are tired, but also from signals from the environment telling us it’s dark outside.
How sleep is induced?
The rise in sleep-inducing chemicals, like adenosine and melatonin, send us into a light doze that grows deeper, making our breathing and heart rate slow down and our muscles relax. In this non-REM sleep is when DNA is repaired and our bodies replenish themselves for the day ahead. It’s estimated that in the United States, 30% of adults and 66% of adolescents are regularly sleep-deprived. This isn’t just a minor inconvenience. When we lose sleep, learning, memory, mood, and reaction time are affected. Sleeplessness may also cause inflammation, halluciations, high blood pressure, and it’s even been linked to diabetes and obesity.
A devoted soccer fan died after staying awake for 48 hours to watch the World Cup in 2014. While his death was due to a stroke, studies show that chronically sleeping fewer than six hours a night increases stroke risk by four and half times compared to those getting a consistent seven to eight hours of good night sleep.
But there are ones that do not sleep! For a handful of people on the planet who carry a rare inherited genetic mutation, sleeplessness is a daily reality. This condition is known as Fatal Familial Insomnia. It places the body in a nightmarish state of wakefulness, forbidding it from entering the sanctuary of sleep. Within months or years, this progressively worsening condition leads to dementia and death.
Staying awake can cause serious bodily harm.
How can sleep deprivation cause such immense suffering?
Scientists suspect that the answer lies with the accumulation of waste products in the brain. During our waking hours, our cells are busy using up our day’s energy sources, which get broken down into various byproducts, including adenosine. As adenosine builds up, it increases the urge to sleep, also known as sleep pressure. In fact, caffeine works by blocking adenosine’s receptor pathways. Other waste products also build up in the brain, and if they’re not cleared away, they collectively overload the brain and are thought to lead to the many negative symptoms of sleep deprivation. So, what’s happening in our brain when we sleep to prevent this? Well a glymphatic system is found. A clean-up mechanism that removes this buildup and is much more active when we’re asleep. It works by using cerebrospinal fluid to flush away toxic byproducts that accumulate between cells. Lymphatic vessels, which serve as pathways for immune cells, have recently been discovered in the brain, and they may also play a role in clearing out the brain’s daily waste products. While scientists continue exploring the restorative mechanisms behind sleep, we can be sure that slipping into slumber is a necessity if we want to maintain our health and our sanity.