What Happens If You Don’t Sleep?


By Adrian Sparrow
NeuLine Health

Sleep is necessary for a healthy lifestyle. It helps your mood and energy levels stay up. Your body has time to repair itself, and your brain can process and store memory. Most college students, shift workers, and entrepreneurs know the rigors of long and sleepless nights. Going 24 hours without sleep can leave you feeling irritable and groggy, along with a lack of focus and struggling memory. Missing even one night of sleep impairs your decision-making and reaction time and increases the risk of accidents. How long can you go without sleep, and what happens?


Sleep Deprivation
Sleep deprivation occurs when a person doesn’t get enough sleep, and sleep deficiency is when factors affect the quality of sleep and prevent a person from waking up refreshed. There are numerous causes of poor sleep:  

-Poor sleep hygiene (Having a nighttime routine/method for bedtime) 

-Sleep disorders and other medical conditions

-Mental health conditions

-Work or school obligations

-Alcohol, caffeine, certain medications, and drugs

-Staying up late to watch tv, play video games, or another hobby 

-Extended work hours, night shifts, or multiple jobs

Sometimes simple lifestyle adjustments can help, like avoiding caffeinated drinks in the evening before bedtime, while other situations could require a career change or medical attention.


How Long Can You Go Without Sleep? 
The record for the longest time awake is approximately 264 hours or just over 11 days. In San Diego in 1963, 17-year-old high school student Randy Gardner and his classmates needed a science fair project and decided to explore the effects of sleep deprivation on cognitive abilities and performance. To keep him awake, he and his friends did activities like basketball and bowling. Though Gardner had some caffeinated sodas, he didn’t take any stimulants. 

At the time, very few scientists studied sleep. William Dement of Stanford University was “probably the only person on the planet at the time who had actually done sleep research… the question was still unresolved on whether or not if you go without sleep long enough you will die.” 

As media attention grew, Dement read about the experiment in a newspaper and arrived a few days into the attempt (to Randy’s parents’ ease). To test the effects of lack of sleep, they tested Gardner’s senses of taste, smell, and hearing, as well as his cognitive abilities.  

What happens when you skip sleep? The side effects of missed sleep are immediately noticeable.

-After 24 hours:
After missing just one night of sleep, you’ll experience drowsiness, irritability, impaired judgment, and slower reaction times. Memory, perception, vision, hearing, and hand-eye coordination all decline after missed sleep, and you might experience muscle tension and tremors. If you stayed awake all night to finish school or work obligations, you’d find yourself struggling to stay focused and alert for the rest of your day.

-After 36 hours:
Several bodily functions are affected by sleep changes. Appetite and metabolism are linked to sleep, as well as temperature, mood, and your level of stress. After going without sleep for 36 hours, you’ll experience extreme fatigue, hormonal imbalances, speech impairments, and decreased attention span. You’re more likely to see a decrease in motivation, make risky decisions, and have difficulty with reasoning.

-After 48 hours:
After missing two nights of sleep, you might experience ‘microsleeps’ or periods of involuntary light sleep that last less than 30 seconds. These microsleeps are dangerous, especially while operating heavy machinery. Confusion and disorientation are common when your brain falls asleep for a few seconds. In addition, your immune system is disrupted and less able to respond to immediate threats to your health like viruses. 

-After 72 hours:
Most people cannot stay awake on their own after missing three nights of sleep. This amount of sleep deprivation profoundly limits your ability to think, multitask, focus, and access memory. Even simple tasks can be complex. This lack of sleep affects your emotions, leading to a depressed mood, anxiety, or paranoia. Your perception is also altered, and you may experience hallucinations (things that aren’t there) or illusions (misinterpreting something real). 

-After 11 days: 
On January 8, 1964, after staying awake for 11 hours and 25 minutes, Randy Gardner broke the record for the longest time staying awake. He was then taken to a naval hospital where his brain waves could be monitored. According to his friends who helped with the experiment, Gardner slept for 14 hours, and his time in REM sleep “skyrocketed.” After waking up, Gardner reported feeling ‘groggy, but not any groggier than a normal person.’ Every night after, the percentage of his brain’s time in REM lowered until it returned to normal days later. The results concluded that Gardner’s brain had been ‘catnapping,’ or parts of it would be awake while the other parts slept. 

Gardner showed no lasting ill effects but reported suffering from insomnia for several years later in life.  

To prevent others from possibly endangering their health through severe sleep loss, the Guinness Book of World Records no longer certifies attempts at going without sleep. 


Can You Die Without Sleep? 
Fatal Familial Insomnia (FFI) is a rare genetic condition that causes severe insomnia, and the symptoms of the drastic loss of sleep eventually lead to death. Though insomnia is in the name, FFI isn’t actually a sleep disorder. Prion diseases are rare conditions that cause a loss of nerve cells in the brain, and FFI specifically affects the thalamus. FFI is one of the rarest prion diseases, with only 100 estimated carriers worldwide. Early stage symptoms are trouble falling or staying asleep, muscle stiffness and spasms, and loss of appetite. After insomnia has set in, symptoms rapidly deteriorate. People experience the complete inability to sleep, loss of coordination, hallucinations, delirium, trouble swallowing, high blood pressure, rapid heartbeat, excessive sweating, unintentional weight loss, difficulty managing the body’s temperature, and vivid dreams when the person does sleep. There is no cure; the disease progresses quickly from the onset of symptoms, and most die within 6 to 36 months of heart problems or infections. Genetic testing in families can reduce the risk of passing on the gene mutation responsible for FFI. 

If you experience insomnia, it’s doubtful you have FFI, but talk to your healthcare provider if sleep deficiency affects your daily functioning. 

Next time you wonder about pulling an all-nighter, consider the risks, and you might find that sleep is the safer choice. Your body needs a good night’s rest every single night! 




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