After 21 hours awake, experts say you become “drunk” in your ability to perform. (Photo: Getty Images)
The State Department released a new batch of Hillary Clinton’s emails Monday from her time as Secretary of State, as part of the “Emailgate” investigation.
Among the revelations: One of her former speechwriters stayed awake for nearly 100 hours to complete a speech in 2010.
The writer, Tomicah Tillemann, was the State Department’s senior adviser for civil society and emerging democracies in 2010, and collaborated with Clinton on more than 200 speeches, according to his State Department bio.
An aide sent an email to Clinton, suggesting that she personally thank Tillemann for his work on that particular speech, which covered global Internet freedom.
“If you have the time or the inclination, it would be really nice if you could send an email to Tomicah, or phone him. He went for almost 100 hours without sleep to get the speech done, under unusually trying circumstances,” the aide said in an email. “He deserves more recognition for grace under pressure and a job well done.”
Tillemann tells Yahoo Health that, while he or any other member of Clinton’s staff was never asked to work for that long, he was inspired to do so. “I worked on a lot of speeches. I knew this one mattered,” he said. “I lost many members of my family in the Holocaust, and I felt this speech was a chance to protect key freedoms in our time. That kept me going.”
But, he admits, he had difficulty working after a while: “When things started to get fuzzy — and they did — teammates jumped in to help me across the finish line.”
Tillemann says he doesn’t drink coffee but “by the end I was ready to ink a sponsorship with Diet Coke.” (He also says he took a nap after the speech was done, adding “it was awesome.”)
But…how is it possible to go 100 hours without sleep?
While people have stayed awake for even longer periods of time, it’s pretty difficult to achieve that feat and still function well, board-certified sleep medicine doctor and neurologist W. Christopher Winter, MD, of Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Medicine, tells Yahoo Health.
“That’s over four days,” he says. “You’re going to have a hard time convincing me that there wasn’t some sleep involved there.”
Winter cites Peter Tripp, an American DJ who went without sleep for eight days in the late 1950s as part of a radio stunt. “After two days, he was hallucinating,” says Winter.
Work performance begins to degrade after 16 hours of being awake, Winter says, and after 21 hours, the effect on your body is similar to having 0.08 blood alcohol volume, according to research published in the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine.
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“After 21 hours, he was already drunk in terms of his ability to perform,” Winter says. “I’d love to see some of the later drafts of the speech that he wrote.”
Sleep deprivation also leads to decreased flexibility in the brain, which results in less creative thinking, difficulty finding words, decreased speed and attention, and an increase in errors, Josna Adusumilli, MD, a sleep expert in the Department of Neurology at Massachusetts General Hospital, tells Yahoo Health.
Even if Tillemann didn’t actually lie down for a nap, it’s likely that he experienced microsleeps, unintended brief periods of extreme drowsiness where your brain essentially checks out for a while, Adusumilli says.
(Apparently Tilleman wasn’t too impacted: The speech received praise from many, including the The Atlantic, which called it “logically coherent.”)
Adusumilli says it’s easier for a person’s body to recover from a period of acute sleep deprivation (like being awake for 100 hours) than it is to bounce back from chronic deprivation.
But Winter says there are still “very severe” potential health consequences, including heart attack, stroke, and an increase risk of diabetes. Levels of the stress hormone cortisol also go up, which can negatively impact your heart, pancreas, and blood pressure. “It radically increases the risk of having a heart arrhythmia,” says Winter.
Your brain reacts negatively as well, Winter says: “In the throes of it, you can be acutely psychotic.”
And if you constantly undergo extreme sleep deprivation, you can even increase your risk of developing cancer and Parkinson’s disease, Winter says.
While Tillemann says he would “absolutely” do it again, experts say you really shouldn’t try this at home.
Says Winter: “It’s metabolically disastrous to do this to your body with any regularity.”
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