As readers of my blog know – I have had quite bad insomnia since 2009. I will sleep for fifteen or sixteen hours and then go three or four days without sleep. I never got to the point where I felt like I had a good night’s sleep – I was like the walking dead most days, unable to function.

Such an episode occurred recently – it was my birthday on Friday and I had not really slept until Tuesday. On the advice of my siblings I got in contact with the local GP and came down to the surgery in crisis. I cannot fault the NHS – from the time I picked up the telephone to speak to the helpful receptionist to holding a prescription in my hand there must have only been an hour pass.

I picked up my repeat prescription and was also given some controlled drugs – they are quite heavy weight but I took one around 4pm (I was having palpitations a that point) and quickly fell to slumber. I was expecting to be out until dawn this morning – but, I woke up 10 hours later completely refreshed!

I feel like a new person!

I had always been wary of taking extra medication – especially for something I considered subsidiary, like sleep – but the effect it had on me is amazing. I did not need to reach for the coffee first thing (at 1am), I did not feel like I could have done with an extra three hours in bed – I felt comfortable, clean and welcome in my own body.

But what happens when I don’t sleep?

Firstly, I will have missed out on one of the biggest benefits of sleep – feeling fresh in the morning!

Secondly, sleep is vital for healthy physical, mental and emotional processing. When I go without sleep, or have insufficient sleep, my body struggles to perform to it’s full potential and, as a consequence, I can expect impairments to my next-day physical and mental performance. The same happens to you, you know.

Due to a close link between certain hormones and sleep, not sleeping has the potential to cause imbalances in hormone activity. Human Growth Hormone, for example, peaks during sleep meaning that insufficient sleep may affect growth and cell-repair throughout the body.

In addition to growth, my metabolism may be affected as well. Studies in which healthy individuals have been sleep restricted have shown that there are alterations to hormones involved in the regulation of appetite and an accompanying increase in seeking out food, as well as glucose metabolism.

What interests me is what happens in the brain when there is a shortage of sleep: overall, research has suggested that normal functioning is likely to be hindered by loss of sleep. Repercussions such as reduced energy levels with bursts of euphoria, unstable moods and excessive sleepiness during the day (obvs.) have all been observed in people who haven’t slept, according to research conducted by S.C.I.E.N.C.E.

Excessive sleepiness can be especially hindering and even dangerous as it tends to be preceded by frequent lapses in focus before individuals fall into a short episodes of sleep, also known as ‘microsleeps’. These episodes are a known contributing factor to traffic accidents with drowsy drivers falling asleep at the wheel (Boyle et al. 2008).

Whilst we can recover from not sleeping very quickly, it can have negative long-term consequences for our health. Chronic poor and restricted sleep are known, for example, to be associated with the development of illness, notably cardiovascular disease, diabetes, hypertension and certain types of cancers.

The most well known experiment on total sleep deprivation involved a teenager called Randy Gardner, who managed to maintain wakefulness for 11 days. During this period, he experienced problems with his working memory, speech and eventually hallucinations.

It is safe to say that keeping yourself awake long after feeling the pressure to sleep is unwise. Sleeping is not something humans can choose to do or not to do – it is essential for facilitating normal functioning.

However, this is not a scientific paper – it is a celebration that my brain has had a night’s rest. I missed out on a good swath of my birthday and, poor Kathryn, Valentine’s Day was a bit of a write off – but, I intend to make up for it. So, thanks to M. & A. (my siblings) for getting me to go to the GP.

Boyle, L.N., Tippin, J., Paul, A., Rizzo, M. (2008). Driver performance in the moments surrounding a microsleep. Transportation Research Part F: Traffic Psychology and Behaviour, 11(2), 126-136.

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