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Can Being Sleep Deprived Actually Kill You Early?

insomnia, sleepPeople who suffer from a rare form of insomnia can die from lack of sleep.

A genetic disease called fatal familial insomnia, or FFI, causes people to fall into a state in which they are neither asleep nor awake. Since they cannot fully sleep, they suffer from exhaustion, dementia and eventually death. There is no cure.

According to ABC News:

"The genetic mutation for FFI runs in families. Only 40 families are known to have this disease in the world, but most people have had at least one night where it seems impossible to fall asleep.”

A lack of sleep clearly wreaks havoc with many facets of human health. Scientists have long known, for instance, that lack of sleep is associated with weight gain. One study found that after a night of abbreviated sleep, subjects consumed more than 500 extra calories.

Another study also found that subjects ate significantly more snacks and carbohydrates after a night of only five and a half hours of sleep.

According to the New York Times:

“Some studies pin the blame on hormones, arguing that decreased sleep creates a spike in ghrelin, a hormone that stimulates appetite, and a reduction in leptin, which signals satiety.”

Dr. Mercola's Comments:
Americans get about 25 percent less sleep than they did a century ago -- and this isn’t just a matter of having less energy.

If you’ve ever stayed awake for 24+ hours cramming for a test, or done so by force because of insomnia, you know what I mean. As ABC News reported, staying awake for just one night is enough to make you act as though you’re legally intoxicated if you get behind the wheel.

And for people who suffer from fatal familial insomnia, or FFI, a lack of sleep quickly turns fatal. Your body simply cannot survive without regular, quality sleep, which is why Silvano, who had FFI and lost the ability to sleep at age 53, tragically fell into a coma and died just four months after entering a sleep clinic.

The medical community is basically clueless as to what causes FFI, or how to treat it, but there is speculation that it may be related to prions, proteins that have also been implicated in mad cow disease.

The valuable lesson that can be learned from FFI, even on the surface, is just how crucial sleep is to your health. It is no less vital than food, water and air, as if you deprive yourself of any one of these long enough, it will swiftly kill you.

Many Americans are Sleep Deprived

Only about four in 10 respondents said they got a good night’s sleep every night, or almost every night, of the week, according to the latest poll from the National Sleep Foundation (NSF).

Before the invention of the light bulb, people slept an average of 10 hours a night. Nowadays, a separate NSF poll found that Americans sleep just under 7 hours per night, on average, during the week and about 7.5 hours on the weekends.

There is a concerning overall trend in that Americans are sorely lacking on good-quality shut-eye, a scenario that could be putting your health at risk.

Health Risks of Not Enough Sleep

Too little sleep impacts your levels of thyroid and stress hormones, which in turn can affect your memory and immune system, your heart and metabolism, and much more. Over time, lack of sleep can lead to:

Recent research has also found that sleep duration was linked to gains in abdominal fat even after researchers accounted for other factors that could influence weight, such as calories consumed and exercise habits. This is the type of fat linked to heart disease, type 2 diabetes, strokes and other chronic diseases, so it’s a matter that goes way beyond aesthetics.

What this means is that if you’re not taking your sleep needs seriously, you could be unknowingly sabotaging your weight -- and your health.

One way this occurs is by altering levels of important hormones linked with appetite and eating behavior. When you are sleep deprived, your body decreases production of leptin, the hormone that tells your brain there is no need for more food. At the same time it increases levels of ghrelin, a hormone that triggers hunger.

In one study, researchers found people who received only four hours of sleep a night for two nights experienced:

  • 18 percent reduction in leptin
  • 28 percent increase in ghrelin

Also, the sleep-deprived subjects in the study seemed to eat more sweet and starchy foods, rather than vegetables and dairy products. Researchers suspected these cravings stemmed from the fact that your brain is fueled by glucose (blood sugar); therefore, when lack of sleep occurs, your brain searches for carbohydrates.

In short, sleep deprivation puts your body into a pre-diabetic state, and makes you feel hungry, even if you’ve already eaten.

Your Body Depends on its Sleep-Wake Cycle

The consequences of sleep deprivation are so intense because your circadian rhythm has evolved over hundreds of generations to align your physiology with your environment, and your body clock assumes that, like your ancestors, you sleep at night and stay awake during daylight hours.

If you confuse the situation by depriving yourself of enough hours of sleep, you send conflicting signals to your body.

A single night of sleeping only four to six hours can impact your ability to think clearly the next day. Sleep deprivation can cause changes in your brain activity similar to those experienced by people with psychiatric disorders

In addition, too little sleep can:

  • Increase your risk of cancer by altering the balance of hormones in your body
  • Increase your risk of heart disease and stroke
  • Raise your blood pressure
  • Speed up tumor growth. Tumors grow two to three times faster in laboratory animals with severe sleep dysfunctions

Your body also does most of its repairs during sleep, so not getting enough of it can impair your immune system, leaving you less able to fight off diseases of ALL kinds.

How to “Program Your Body” for a Restful Night’s Sleep

Many people have trouble falling asleep because their mind is racing with thoughts from their day (or planning for the next).

This is why I recommend that at least an hour before your bedtime (but preferably two or more) you start to wind down from your day. You may want to spend time journaling, meditating, sipping herbal tea, washing your face, using Meridian Tapping/Emotional Freedom Techniques (MTT/EFT) or reading a calming or spiritual book.

During this time, turn off your phone and your e-mail, and put away all work. This will give your mind a chance to unwind so you can go to sleep feeling calm, not hyped up or anxious about tomorrow's deadlines.

Ideally, I recommend getting to bed as early as possible. Your body, particularly your adrenals, do a majority of their recharging or recovering during the hours of 11 p.m. and 1 a.m., so you should definitely try to be asleep during those hours.

When you get into bed, make sure you room is completely dark -- I’m talking pitch black -- in order to protect your melatonin levels.

Melatonin is secreted primarily in your brain and at night it triggers a host of biochemical activities, including a nocturnal reduction in your body's estrogen levels. It’s thought that chronically decreasing your melatonin production at night -- as occurs when you’re exposed to nighttime light -- increases your risk of developing cancer.

The more your sleep is disrupted by light pollution, the lower your melatonin levels and the greater your risk of developing cancer becomes. So PLEASE make sure you sleep in a pitch-dark room every night -- and this means not only installing blackout drapes if necessary, but also turning off the TV!

Once in the bedroom, some people find the sound of white noise or nature sounds, such as the ocean or forest, to be soothing for sleep. You’ll also want to adjust the temperature in your bedroom to a cool setting (most people find they sleep best at temperatures no higher than 70 degrees F and perhaps even a bit lower than that).

For even more helpful guidance on how to improve your sleep, please review my 33 Secrets to a Good Night’s Sleep. It is filled with tips to help you achieve regular, restful sleep that will support and enhance your health.