When we don’t sleep

by Christina on August 15, 2012

Over the past year, I’ve been experiencing and thinking about sleep deprivation quite a bit.

During long overnight shifts in the hospital, I now recognize my symptoms: feeling freezing cold, breathing faster, craving sugary foods, poor word-recall, the beginnings of a sore throat, making silly mistakes, seeing/hearing things that aren’t there. It’s not great for patient care, and it can’t be great for my body. Sleep makes those symptoms go away, but I can’t help wonder about the long-term effect?

This morning I woke up to this excerpt in my inbox, and can’t wait to read the full book:

“In the 1980s, researchers at the University of Chicago decided to find out what happens when an animal is deprived of sleep for a long period of time. In but one of the many odd tests you will find in the history of sleep research, these scientists forced rats to stay awake by placing them on a tiny platform suspended over cold water. The plat­form was balanced so that it would remain level only if a rat kept moving. If a rat fell asleep, it would tumble into the water and be forced to swim back to safety (or drown, an option that the researchers seemed strangely blase about).

“Fast-forward to two weeks later. All of the rats were dead. This confused the researchers, though they had a few hints that something bad was going to happen. As the rats went longer and longer without sleep, their bodies began to self-destruct. They developed strange spots and festering sores that didn’t heal, their fur started to fall out in large clumps, and they lost weight no matter how much food they ate. So the researchers decided to perform autopsies, and lo and behold they found nothing wrong with the animals’ organs that would lead them to fail­ing so suddenly. This mystery gnawed at scientists so much that twenty years later, another team decided to do the exact same experiment, but with better instruments. This time, they thought, they will find out what happens inside of a rat’s body during sleep deprivation that ultimately leads to its death. Again the rats stayed awake for more than two weeks, and again they died after developing gnarly sores. But just like their peers in Chicago years earlier, the research team could find no clear reason why the rats were keeling over. The lack of sleep itself looked to be the killer. The best guess was that staying awake for so long drained the animal’s system and made it lose the ability to regulate its body temperature.

“Humans who are kept awake for too long start to show some of the same signs as those hapless rats. … Within the first twenty-four hours of sleep deprivation, the blood pressure starts to increase. Not long afterward, the metabolism levels go haywire, giving a person an uncontrollable craving for carbo­hydrates. The body temperature drops and the immune system gets weaker. If this goes on for too long, there is a good chance that the mind will turn against itself, making a person experi­ence visions and hear phantom sounds akin to a bad acid trip. At the same time, the ability to make simple decisions or recall obvious facts drops off severely. It is a bizarre downward spi­ral that is all the more peculiar because it can be stopped com­pletely, and all of its effects will vanish, simply by sleeping for a couple of hours.”

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Chris Palmer August 15, 2012 at 7:25 pm

Doctors would never be allowed to do their job intoxicated, yet they are allowed to do their job when exhausted and experiencing loss of judgment and other symptoms reminiscent of being intoxicated.

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