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Death raises questions about the dangers of lacking sleep

Dr. Christina Darby at Virginia Mason in Seattle said eventually everybody reaches a point where they will be sleepy enough to simply pass out. (AP Photo/File)

The death of a 21-year-old Bank of America Merrill Lynch intern last week raised questions about the dangers of going too long without adequate sleep.

According to the UK’s Independent, the intern said he had pulled eight all-nighters during the last few weeks of his internship.

So I spoke to Virginia Mason sleep medicine specialist Dr. Christina Darby, and she says your body will definitely tell you when you’ve gone too long without enough rest.

“It is important to pay attention and listen to that,” said Darby. “There is something called the homeostatic sleep drive, meaning the longer you stay awake, the sleepier you’re going to eventually become.”

She said eventually, everybody reaches a point where they will be sleepy enough to simply pass out. Others will be feeling fatigued or sleepy before then. Those are the queues that you’re sleep deprived – and the best way to fix that is sleeping.

If you’re driving and you don’t remember the last 100 feet, it may be your brain going in and out of sleep. And since you’re paying poor attention to the road, it can be quite dangerous.

What if someone pulls over to take a power nap?

Darby said the alternatives to pulling over for a brief sleep aren’t as good. “Research does show that many of the things people try, like turning on the radio or rolling down the window, turning on the air conditioner – particularly while driving, has little impact on trying to stay awake.”

The best way to address sleep deprivation on the road, said Darby, is as short as a 15 minute power nap.

“Sometimes that can be quite refreshing,” she said.

But what about chugging three or four cans of Rockstar Energy Drink on your road trip?

“We do know that caffeine helps decrease sleep onset or helps you stay awake. But it’s not really a substitute for trying to get enough sleep yourself,” said Darby.

As for when you sleep – like if you have to work the swing shift – that can make a huge impact on how you function, too.

“We all have what’s called a circadian pattern or 24-hour pattern to our sleep and wake structure. Most of us tend to feel sleepy and be apt to fall asleep sometime between 10 p.m. and midnight. Sometimes there is a mismatch between when you’re trying to fall asleep and when you’re trying to work and for some folks, that’s that causes trouble, but there can be steps taken to address that.”’s Alyssa Kleven contributed to this report.

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