Why is Sleep Deprivation Fatal?

Posted by Gretchen Jones on May 05, 2019

Why is Sleep Deprivation Fatal?

I sleep seven-and-a-half to nine hours every twenty-four hours, usually seven to eight hours at night. When I hit this targeted amount of sleep, my workouts are better, my heart rate is awesome, my nerves are sharp, and my creativity and memory are at their peaks.

In one study, sleep researchers constructed a cruel contraption that woke up rats as soon as they fell asleep. Using this contraption, it took an average of three weeks to kill a rat by sleep deprivation. Other research has shown demonstrable brain damage in sleep-deprived rats, primarily because of a severe lack of neurogenesis (regrowth or rebuilding of new brain neurons) from rampant levels of sleep-­deprivation-induced cortisol.

While sleep deprivation is a well-known form of torture for rats, for ethical reasons researchers could not reproduce these studies in humans. But by looking at sleep disorders, we can get a pretty clear idea of what happens when people don’t sleep enough.

For example, death occurs within a few months in humans who have fatal familial insomnia, a mutation that causes the affected person to suffer from a progressively worsening insomnia that ends in death within a few months. Morvan’s syndrome is another example of lack of sleep causing death: In this case, the autoimmune disease destroys the brain’s potassium channels, which leads to severe insomnia and death.

Because of their ability to cause high blood pressure and heart disease, sleep disorders add $16 billion to national health-care costs each year. And that does not include the cost of accidents and lost productivity at work, which in America alone amounts to $150 billion each year. Remember the disaster at Three Mile Island? Chernobyl? The gas leak at Bhopal? The Zeebrugge ferry accident? The Exxon Valdez oil spill? If you do a little research, you’ll find that these and many other major industrial disasters have been directly linked to sleep deprivation.

So why is sleep deprivation fatal? Primarily because depriving the body of sleep is synonymous to speeding up the aging process. There are two primary reasons for this:

  1. The brain cleans up cellular garbage while you sleep;
  2. The body repairs itself while you sleep.

Let’s begin by looking at the first reason – the need to clean up cellular garbage. One of the most important functions of sleep is the reorganization of neural networks in your brain. All day long – even on the most boring day possible – you are consciously or subconsciously learning new things, memorizing facts or task processes, acquiring skills, establishing new memories through creative associations, meeting new people, and the like. After a long day of these activities, your brain is full of myriad discrete pieces of information that have to be integrated with all the other things you have learned previously in your life.

During a night of sleep, you absorb and process all this information. At the same time, relatively new research shows that toxins are flushed from the brain through lymphatic vessels in the brain, called glymphatics (interestingly, lying on your side when you sleep may be the most efficient position for toxins to flush out of the brain through the glymphatics). If this reorganization and glymphatic drainage isn’t allowed to occur, your mind becomes a chaotic storehouse for cellular garbage, and although you do not actually “run out of space” to store new memories, if new information you have learned is not linked to established memories, it simply gets flushed out in Stage 3 and 4 sleep (which you’ll learn about soon). Once this happens, it affects nearly all functions of your body that are governed by your central nervous system, and your body eventually begins to malfunction, especially with long term sleep deprivation.

These malfunctions typically manifest as:

-Problems with heat or cold regulation

-A decline in immune function

-An increase in cortisol, catecholamines, and other stress hormones

-Imbalances in appetite- and blood-sugar-regulating hormones

-Increased levels of inflammatory hormones, such as interleukin and C-­reactive protein

In later stages of sleep deprivation, you experience malnutrition, hallucinations, malfunctions of your autonomic nervous system (e.g. heart arrhythmias or kidney and liver dysfunction), changes in cell-adhesion and cell-clotting abilities, skin lesions, and DNA damage. So that’s the first reason you die a slow death if you don’t sleep: your body basically falls apart.

The second reason you’ll die if you don’t sleep is that sleep is the primary anabolic state of the human body. During nighttime sleep, you experience an increase in growth hormone and testosterone—two crucial muscle-repairing hormones that also significantly affect your neural growth and the way you feel during the day. One study describes these nighttime hormonal surges as playing a “crucial role in consolidating and enhancing waking experience.” And it’s why you feel so damn good after a solid night of sleep. It’s also why your body can take two to three times longer to repair and recover from physical exercise when you’re not sleeping.

So when you don’t sleep enough, your body is in a continuous hormonally depleted, catabolic state and gets sicker and sicker.

And this is why I shake my head and laugh at people who brag about how little they sleep. They’re shrinking their brains, shrinking their muscles, and making themselves sick.

Starting at about 6 a.m., you experience a surge of cortisol. This surge of morning cortisol is what turns on your brain and body. It also coincides with the release of the very important hormone vasoactive intestinal polypeptide, fittingly called VIP. VIP causes a variety of important wake-up actions, such as increased contractility in your heart, vasodilation (widening of your blood vessels), and liver glycogenolysis (breakdown of your liver’s glycogen to naturally bring your blood sugar up).

VIP relaxes the smooth muscle of your trachea, stomach, and gallbladder, which means that, within two hours of waking, it’s a good time for a bowel movement.

Around sunset, the hormone leptin is released from your fat stores. If your circadian rhythm is in sync and leptin is able to do its job properly, leptin can actually shift your body into fatty-acid utilization, suppress your appetite, and control any late-night food cravings. But excessive nighttime light exposure and enormous evening meals can actually inhibit leptin release, so limiting large amounts of late-night snacking and smartphone tapping is a good idea if you want to normalize your circadian rhythm.

Assuming that you haven’t been drowning in artificial light from televisions, movie screens, computer screens, smartphones, e-readers, and bright household light bulbs, and that you’ve equipped your sleep environment with light-blocking devices such as a sleep mask and blackout curtains, your body starts secreting the hormone melatonin at around 10 p.m. Melatonin allows your body to sleep and recuperate, turns off waking brain activity to allow for neuronal repair, pulls oxygen and needed hormones away from muscle tissue and other cells, and generally makes it difficult to be physically active and easy to sleep.

The other thing that happens at around 10 p.m. is that a protein called agouti peaks, which can stimulate your appetite the same way the hunger hormone ghrelin does—unless leptin is there to play bouncer, keeping the door shut on agouti protein. So you can see how you set yourself up for a vicious cycle of poor sleep, fat gain and a nighttime explosion of cravings if you snack from sunset to bedtime, because snacking causes blood glucose fluctuations and high insulin levels, which causes a drop in leptin and leptin sensitivity and subsequent suppression of leptin. That means leptin won’t be around to counteract agouti protein, so you get massively hungry when you’re supposed to be falling asleep! Sound familiar?

Gastrointestinal activity begins to quiet down at around 11, so you should not need to use the bathroom until you wake up, which is yet another reason to train your body to take one giant glorious morning dump. At around midnight, melatonin peaks, and that’s when leptin is able to enter an area of the brain called the hypothalamus. This is very important from a metabolic and weight-control or fat-loss standpoint because when leptin enters your hypothalamus, your fat reserves are released and your thyroid receives a signal to upregulate thyroid function.

When leptin enters the hypothalamus, it also induces changes in your mitochondria to help them produce heat. When you are asleep, your core temperature falls, and your body has to maintain a set point of warmth, which can’t be generated from running or lifting weights. In the same way that cold thermogenesis allows you to create brown adipose tissue that then produces heat from calories, a good sleep cycle also allows your mitochondria to produce heat from calories. So, in an ideal world, you mobilize and burn your fat stores while you sleep. Starting to get an idea of why obesity is linked to lack of sleep?

It is also around this midnight point in the cycle that melatonin enters an area of the brain called the suprachiasmatic nucleus, and when it does, it decreases your neuron-firing rate. Basically, melatonin slows down your brain and allows your neurons and nervous system to heal while cementing learning and memory and allowing you to feel a lot sharper when you wake up in the morning.

The other nice thing that happens when melatonin peaks at around midnight is that you get a release of prolactin, which is an incredibly important hormone. A deficiency in prolactin (often found in postmenopausal women) can cause a decline in brain activity, a propensity to gain weight, and high levels of inflammatory cytokine molecules associated with lack of recovery and chronic pain. Meanwhile, balanced prolactin levels increase the recycling of cells, the renewal of cells, and the creation of new cells. It also promotes the release of growth hormone.

If not much prolactin is released while you sleep, you tend to produce less growth hormone, which can cause low levels of DHEA, another very important hormone. Low levels of these hormones result in reduced cardiac function and reduced skeletal muscle function. You can now understand that, if melatonin doesn’t enter the suprachiasmatic nucleus or leptin doesn’t enter the hypothalamus, there will be some serious repercussions, especially for heart health, muscle repair, full-body recovery, and daily physical performance.

In menopause, the body no longer produces the corpus luteum, an endocrine structure that is essential to the female sexual reproductive function. The corpus luteum causes a monthly surge of progesterone, which is necessary to balance estrogen levels.

What’s a sleep stage, anyways?

When you’re asleep, you progress through five distinct stages:

-Stage 1 is called “transition” or light sleep. This is when your eye movement and muscle activity slow down. If you’ve ever felt an arm or a leg suddenly jerk or twitch while you were drifting off, it likely happened during this stage.

-Stage 2 is when your eyes stop moving and brain waves slow.

-Stage 3 is when you’ve entered deep sleep. If you were hooked up to an electroencephalogram (EEG) machine, it would reveal large, slow, undulating brain waves known as delta waves. Delta sleep is the farthest from being awake your brain can get, and if someone were to try and wake you during delta sleep, they’d usually have a hard time doing so.

-Stage 4 is very similar to Stage 3, except by this point in your sleep cycle, the majority of your brain waves are now delta waves. Stages 3 and 4 are now often combined together and called S3 sleep.

-Stage 5 is also known as rapid eye movement or REM sleep. While your eyes can indeed move rapidly during this sleep cycle, the rest of the muscles in your body are mostly paralyzed. This is also the stage at which dreams occur (dreams can occur in any stage of sleep but more likely in stage REM).

The total time required to pass through all five of the sleep stages is about 90 minutes.

Sleep Biohacks

You can also use Dr. Jeffrey Thompson’s Delta Sleep System CDs/MP3 downloads or Michael Tyrell’s Love & Lullaby tracks, which you can play as background music in your bedroom to lull you to sleep. For these, I’d recommend a speaker placed on either side of the bed so that your brain is exposed to a more balanced sound from both left and right, or the use of a sound furniture such as HUMU sound conducting pillow.

Then there’s grounding. I spend about 90 percent of my time barefoot or wearing grounded shoes or sandals, sleeping with a grounding device under my mattress, and wearing a grounding wristband. This may seem strange, but grounding is one of the best sleep–hacking strategies I know.

The idea behind grounding, also known as earthing, is that the surface of the Earth emits a natural magnetic frequency that assists with circadian rhythm, hormonal cycles, and absorption of negatively charged free electrons (which can mitigate oxidation, stress, etc.). Since most of us spend a lot of time indoors wearing shoes, not touching the ground or grass, we are missing the benefit of the Earth’s frequency. Using a mattress or mat wired to the Earth through an outlet is one way to tap into it and become “grounded.” These devices are called “grounding mats”, and have been used by professional athletes – including Tour De France riders between grueling stages – to enhance sleep and recovery.

Another even more powerful way to ground is through small devices or large beds that emit the same magnetic frequency as the Earth. Two portable, user-friendly devices that can be placed on or near the body, or under the mattress during sleep, are the “Flexpulse” and the “Earthpulse”. Then there’s the BioMat mattress, which will set you back several thousand dollars but beats the pants off a grounding or earthing mat since it produces infrared heating light as well. Finally, for the “Cadillac” of PEMF units, there are the larger Bemer mats and PulseCenter beds, both of which can be used for injuries, recovery, hormone production, headache elimination and a host of other very useful health-enhancing effects.

And what about those grounding shoes or sandals? I wear a brand called Earth Runners. Here’s how grounding shoes work: Black plugs made from a carbon-and-rubber compound are placed in the soles under a weight-bearing part of the feet, ensuring electrical contact between the wearer and the Earth. The plugs, designed to conduct a flow of free electrons from the Earth to your body, allow you to become grounded when you walk on grass, sand, soil—or even concrete. These can also be quite effective for jet lag.

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