Editor’s Note: This content was originally published by USA TODAY in 2017.
For students, new parents and deadlines employees, sleepless nights are nothing new. But not sleeping leaves you basically drunk, which puts you at the equivalent of a 0.1% blood alcohol level when you drive to work, make decisions, and interact with others.
“The first thing that goes is your ability to think,” said Joseph Ojile, MD, board member of the National Sleep Foundation and founder of the Clayton Sleep Institute in St. Louis. Judgment, memory, and concentration are all affected by the 17th Sleepless Hour, he says.
“We know that at 5 pm you have a blood alcohol level of 0.08%,” he said, the legal standard for drunk driving. “At 24 hours, you are at 0.1%.”
Coordination also deteriorates in these intervening hours, said Ojile, a professor at the Faculty of Medicine at Saint Louis University. Irritability sets in too. The pain becomes more acute and the immune system suffers, he said, leaving the body more open to infections.
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“Here is the worst part about the lack of judgment,” Ojile said. “The person is not aware of their disability. How scary is that? ‘I’m fine, I’ll drive home. I’ll do my job at the nuclear power plant, no problem. Or fly the plane, no problem. ‘ “
It is not entirely clear how the effects worsen beyond the 24 hours, said Ojile, other than them. The brain begins to stop in trance microsleeps, periods of 15 to 30 seconds that occur without the person realizing it. Ultimately, not sleeping leads to death.
“It can vary from person to person, but it can take a week or two,” he said. “If you want to kill someone someday, just keep doing it.”
And if the above effects seem dramatic compared to your sleepless nights, remember that you can’t remember them clearly.
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Drowsy driving caused 72,000 crashes and 800 deaths from 2009 to 2013, according to a report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Almost a third of all drivers admitted to driving drowsy in the past month in a 2015 AAA survey.
If you find yourself on the road and lacking sleep, don’t think you can just have a cup of coffee and hit the road. It takes an hour for caffeine to kick in, Ojile said, so stop for a bit and take a break. You can use the rest.
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