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How Long Can You Go Without Sleep? : Research

Dr Rohit Bhaskar
Dr Rohit Bhaskar
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SLEEP, Getting enough sleep is vital for both physical and emotional well-being. Insomnia can lead to many short- and long-term health effects.


How long can a person go without sleep

Ultimately, we do not know. Sleep science is a young discipline and only in the last few decades have we really started to make advances in our understanding of the importance and functions of sleep. In the 1960s a high school student named Randy Gardner set out to break the world record for the longest time spent awake. During the experiment he contracted problems with eyesight as well as various cognitive deficiencies, such as speech and memory problems (Ross, 1965). Towards the end of the experiment he also started to hallucinate. These symptoms emerged within just 11 days.

What we do know is that it is unwise to ignore our need for sleep. The negative side effects of partial sleep deprivation have been observed in in countless research studies and it is safe to assume that these would only be worsened by prolonged total sleep deprivation.


What is Insomina?
Insomnia occurs when a person gets less sleep than their body needs. The effects of sleep deprivation can vary from person to person.
Children and teenagers need more sleep than adults as their brains and bodies are still developing and growing. As such, the effects of sleep deprivation in children can sometimes be more severe or longer-lasting.
General symptoms of sleep deprivation in adults can include:
  • Fatigue and sleepiness during the day
  • Concentration, alertness, and memory difficulties
  • Reduced coordination
  • Irritability
  • Increased appetite
  • Mood changes
Regular or chronic insomnia can also increase a person’s risk of several health conditions, including obesity, diabetes, and heart disease

Brain without sleep?
Overall, research has suggested that normal functioning is likely to be hindered by loss of sleep. Repercussions such as reduced energy levels with bursts of euphoria, unstable moods and excessive sleepiness during the day have all been observed in people who haven't slept.
Excessive sleepiness can be especially hindering and even dangerous as it tends to be preceded by frequent lapses in focus before individuals fall into a short episodes of sleep, also known as 'microsleeps'. These episodes are a known contributing factor to traffic accidents with drowsy drivers falling asleep at the wheel (Boyle et al. 2008).
Whilst we can recover from not sleeping very quickly, it can have negative long-term consequences for our health. Chronic poor and restricted sleep are known, for example, to be associated with the development of illness, notably cardiovascular disease, diabetes, hypertsion and certain types of cancers.
Research on sleep deprivation


Exeperiment on Insomnia
The most well known experiment on total sleep deprivation involved a teenager called Randy Gardner, who managed to maintain wakefulness for 11 days. During this period, he experienced problems with his working memory, speech and eventually hallucinations.
It is safe to say that keeping yourself awake long after feeling the pressure to sleep is unwise. Sleeping is not something humans can whether or not to do – it is essential for facilitating normal functioning.

Can insomnia kill?
Insomnia can be fatal in certain circumstances.
For example, sleep deprivation can increase the risk of dangerous accidents. 
An incredibly rare sleep disorder called fatal familial insomnia (FFI) can also result in death.
FFI is an inherited condition that results from a mutation in the prion protein (PRNP) gene. The mutated gene produces misfolded prions that accumulate in the thalamus, which is the region of the brain that regulates sleep.
The symptoms of FFI typically present in middle adulthood and include:
  • Mild insomnia that gets progressively worse
  • Weight loss
  • Lack of appetite
  • Changes in body temperature
  • Dementia that progresses rapidly
One Day Without Sleep
Share on PinteresMost people will begin to experience the effects of sleep deprivation after just 24 hours. The CDC claim that staying awake for at least 24 hours is comparable to having a blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.10 percent. In the U.S., it is illegal to drive with a BAC of 0.08 percent or above.
The effects of going without sleep for 24 hours can include:
  • Drowsiness
  • Irritability
  • Concentration and memory difficulties
  • Reduced coordination
  • Impaired judgment
  • Short-term memory problems
  • Raised levels of stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline
  • Increased blood sugar levels
  • A higher risk of accidents
  • Muscle tension
2 days without sleep
The effects of sleep deprivation intensify the longer a person stays awake. After going without sleep for 48 hours, a person’s cognitive performance will worsen, and they will become very fatigued.
At this point, the brain will start entering brief periods of complete unconsciousness, also known as microsleep. Microsleep occurs involuntarily and can last for several seconds.

4 days without sleep
Some effects of staying awake for 72 hours include:
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Difficulty multitasking
  • Severe concentration and memory issues
  • Paranoia
  • Depressed mood
  • Difficulty communicating with others
Sleeping tips
  • Maintaining a consistent sleep schedule by going to sleep and waking up at the same time each day, including at weekends
  • Removing electronic devices, such as smartphones, computers, and televisions, from the bedroom
  • Keeping the bedroom dark and at a comfortable temperature
  • Avoiding stimulants, such as caffeine and nicotine, before bedtime
  • Winding down before going to bed, for example, by having a warm bath, reading a book, or doing relaxation exercises
  • Exercising regularly but avoiding vigorous physical activity just before going to bed
  • Avoiding eating close to bedtime

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