Sleep Deprivation Hallucinations and Death: Here Is the Shocking Truth

Over 90 million Americans report experiencing parasomnias such as sleep deprivation hallucinations and insomnia every single night. A third of Americans are sleep deficient. And researchers warn it’s killing us.

Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, is an admitted type A, workaholic, overachiever; the sort of person who burns the candle at both ends and who views sleep as an option. Earlier this year, when Musk boasted about a 120-hour work week, investors reacted sharply, and the stock prices for both companies dropped. But why?

Sleep deprivation leads to poor decision-making. Chronic sleep deprivation depletes our mental and physical health and general wellbeing. Also, it decreases longevity. Neuroscientist Matthew Walker explains, “the shorter you sleep, the shorter you live.” What causes sleep deprivation? And what are sleep deprivation hallucinations? Are they harmful? Finally, how do we restore normal sleep patterns?

What Is Sleep Deprivation?

The information in this report is well-researched but does not constitute medical advice. Please see your healthcare provider if you have symptoms of depression, anxiety, or sleep disorders.

Also called sleep deficiency, sleep deprivation occurs when we don’t get enough sleep — or if our sleep is fractured. The stages of sleep deprivation are chronic, acute, and acute recurring; each has its own risk factors and symptoms. We all have slightly different sleep requirements. Consequently, sleep deprivation is a challenging term to pin down.

Fortunately, it’s easier to define what is normal or adequate sleep. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) notes that our sleep requirements are age-variant.

  • Infants need between 12 and 16 hours a day — including naps
  • Toddlers require 11 to 14 hours of sleep
  • Young children require 10 to 13 hours
  • Children and tweens need 9 to 12 hours
  • Teens need 8 to 10 hours a day
  • Adults should get 7 to 8 hours

Linking death to sleep deprivation

A group of British researchers looked for a correlation between complaints of prolonged sleeplessness among a group of 10,000 civil servants. The study took over two decades to complete. Published results proved that those who decreased their sleep from seven hours to five hours or less doubled their risks of death from all causes. Further, sleep deprivation doubled the risk of dying from cardiovascular disease.

Myths and facts about sleep deprivation

It’s a persistent myth, but we can’t condition ourselves to need less sleep. And, we can’t play catch up with the sleep we missed either. Getting enough quality sleep at the right time is essential for good mental and physical health, our quality of life, and the safety of ourselves and others.

Is sleep deprivation related to postpartum depression?

When you have a new baby at home, everyone feels sleep deprived. Exhaustion and depression coexist in many of the 500,000 cases of postpartum depression. Sleep deprivation and postpartum depression have a lot in common. But, here is how they are different.

  • In postpartum depression, the feelings of despair persist after adequate sleep
  • Ambivalence toward self-care and caring for the home are hallmarks of postpartum depression
  • “Racing thoughts” are described by women experiencing postpartum depression
  • Sleep deprivation hallucinations do not occur with postpartum depression

Both postpartum depression and sleep deprivation impact our judgment, concentration, and decision-making skills. All new moms experience emotional highs and lows after giving birth. Mothers who are allowed to hold their baby right away develop strong emotional attachment following childbirth. The absence of that bond indicates depression instead of sleep deprivation.

What Is Circadian Rhythm?

Circadian rhythm is our internal clock. It determines when we will sleep and when should wake. However, it’s not a foolproof system. There are a lot of hacks. The alarm clock is one. It overrides our internal body clock to get us up and at ’em. When we’re out of sync with our natural patterns of sleep, our well-being suffers. Being awake during the day when it is bright and asleep at night when it is dark is a regular sleeping pattern. Shift work at hospitals and in the military wreak havoc on our sleep/wake cycle. It sometimes takes years to overcome. Thankfully, there are measures to help night-shift workers get better sleep like room darkening shades and special portable lamps that simulate sunlight.

Sleep Deprivation Causes

Fun fact: Randy Gardner holds the world record for staying awake the longest. In 1965, the 17-year-old went 264 hours (11 days) without sleep for a school project. We sure hope he got the extra credit.

What causes sleep deprivation when it’s not self-imposed? Research shows that certain groups of people are at a higher risk of developing sleep disorders. This group includes people who:

  • Have a limited window for sleep due to working 12-hour or 16-hour shifts
  • Are taking medications that interfere with sleep (stimulants or prescription steroids)
  • Are night shift workers
  • Make lifestyle choices like drugs or alcohol which prevent adequate sleep
  • Have underlying medical problems, like stress, anxiety, and sleep disorders
  • Are parents to a new baby
  • Are providing in-home care 24/7
  • Members of the military

Additionally, there are a few conditions that frequently co-occur with sleep deprivation. These include heart failure, heart disease, high blood pressure, obstructive sleep apnea, obesity, diabetes, stroke, clinical depression, and ADHD/ADD.

Top 13 Acute Sleep Deprivation Symptoms

If you have ever pulled an “all-nighter,” you’ve experienced acute sleep deprivation or prolonged wakefulness for a period of one to two days. While everyone is different, there are common acute sleep deprivation symptoms.

  1. Frequent yawning
  2. Staring
  3. Fatigue
  4. Moodiness or irritability
  5. Delayed reflexes and slowed reaction times
  6. Difficulty concentrating
  7. Depressed mood
  8. Forgetfulness
  9. Fuzzy or clouded thoughts
  10. Impulsiveness
  11. Clumsiness
  12. Food cravings
  13. Reduced sex drive

Fortunately, once our normal sleep-cycle resumes, most of these symptoms improve.

7 Chronic Sleep Deprivation Symptoms

Chronic sleep deprivation occurs after a prolonged period (days, weeks, or months) without sleep or with fragmented or curtailed sleep. Research shows that when we routinely shortchange our needs for rest, we are doing severe long-term damage to our health.

Sleeplessness prevents our bodies from producing adequate cytokines, which we need to fight infection, putting us at risk for infectious diseases.

  1. Chronic sleep deprivation increases the risk of respiratory diseases
  2. A lack of sleep can impact body weight by influencing leptin and ghrelin, the hormones that control hunger
  3. Sleep deprivation increases insulin production, leading to increased fat storage and a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes
  4. Because cells regenerate while we sleep, lack of sleep means our bodies can’t repair, leading to blood pressure control problems and inflammation linked to cardiovascular disease
  5. Insufficient sleep affects hormone production too
  6. Chronic sleep disruptions lead to other parasomnias like sleep deprivation hallucinations

What Are Sleep Deprivation Hallucinations?

Hallucinations or perceptions include visual distortions, sounds, smells, illusions, and somatosensory (phantom touch). They occur when we perceive something as being real, but it doesn’t actually exist in our environment. Hallucinations are sensory. Therefore, they affect all five senses separately or together.

  • Visual: Seeing shapes, forms, colors, shadows, people, and animals
  • Auditory: Hearing noises and voices that aren’t present
  • Touch: Sufferers report sensations like bugs crawling on their skin or moving inside their body
  • Smell: Olfactory hallucinations occur when a smell or odor is perceived

Research: sleep deprivation hallucinations

In a small research study, doctors discovered most participants experienced psychosis and sleep deprivation hallucinations after being awake for 36 to 48 hours. Others reported symptoms after only one night without sleep. The findings indicated that the longer we stay awake, the closer we are to developing symptoms of psychosis and sleep deprivation hallucinations.

Another study found that perceptual distortions increase in the presence of stress, anxiety, irritability, disassociation, and disorientation. After 48 hours of wakefulness, several participants experienced complex sleep deprivation hallucinations. In addition to hallucinations, symptoms included disordered thinking. And after 72 hours, the clinical findings resembled acute psychosis or delirium. Once the study concluded, patients were allowed to return to a regular sleep schedule. Subsequently, the psychotic symptoms abated in most — but not all patients.

Treatment for Psychotic Sleep Deprivation Hallucinations

Medications include prescription sedatives and antipsychotics. However, these are only helpful during a psychotic episode. The best treatment for sleep deprivation hallucinations is to restore the normal sleep patterns. Thankfully, behavioral and cognitive therapy addresses the underlying issues that keep us up all night like fear or anxiety.

This phase of sleep deprivation is similar to other more serious mental illnesses like schizophrenia and bipolar. Those conditions are chronic, though. And they do not improve with rest and sleep.

What is a sleep specialist?

A sleep specialist is a medical doctor, osteopath, psychiatrist, or psychologist trained in the treatment of sleep disorders, also called parasomnias. Often, a sleep study is necessary to evaluate brain activity while you are sleeping. Thankfully, many insurance plans cover the services of sleep specialists. When should we see a sleep specialist for sleep deprivation hallucinations? See a doctor if symptoms persist. Most sleep deprivation hallucinations subside when our sleep patterns return to normal. A healthcare practitioner provides insight into treatment and diagnoses underlying conditions.

Tips for combating sleep deprivation hallucinations

Some people become sleep deprived due to circumstances out of their control like jobs, kids, and alternative schedules or shift work. For the rest of us, however, changes in our daily habits go a long way to combat sleep deprivation hallucinations.

Limit your caffeine intake

The more caffeine in our bloodstream, the harder it is to fall asleep. Don’t worry, though, no need to give up on lattes. But you should only drink caffeine-containing beverages in the mornings. However, there are hidden sources of caffeine, such as various over the counter pain medications and pain relievers.

Get more exercise

Experts say people who are physically active also sleep better. Therefore, make it a goal to do aerobic exercises for at least 10 minutes a day. However, avoid exercising too close to bedtime as it could have the opposite effect.

Meditate to relieve stress and anxiety

“Stress and anxiety” are like beguiling sirens of Greek mythology. They draw us in, only to steal our peace and joy. Don’t give them another second. Meditate to relax and gain self-awareness. Seek to understand your anxiety triggers and the underlying issues.

5 Steps to a better sleep environment

Nothing compares to the feeling of slipping between high thread-count sheets into a freshly made bed. Practicing good sleep habits is more than adhering to a schedule. First, create a calm, peaceful space that is conducive to sleep. Here are a few ways to do that.

  1. Researchers say the optimal room temperature is between 62 and 67 degrees Fahrenheit
  2. White noise or music is very meditative and relaxing
  3. Make it a no technology zone because the blue light emitted from backlit devices interfere with the body’s circadian rhythm
  4. Invest in a great mattresses
  5. Finally, choose a comfortable pillow

Pulling the Covers off Sleep Deprivation Hallucinations

Hallucinations are purely subjective and unique creations of the individuals experiencing them. Restoring the sleep cycle is the best way to combat sleep deprivation hallucinations. The sleep cycle must reset. Remember, there is no substitute for a good night’s sleep.

Finally, an occasional sleepless night is nothing to worry about. However, research confirms that our bodies and minds suffer when we experience chronic sleeplessness. The symptoms are vast and troubling. Medications and therapy work but are a last resort because the best medicine is sleep.