While we all know the importance of getting a good night's sleep and there is research to back up the benefits of getting enough sleep, we also know that sometimes life gets in the way and it just isn’t possible. But how long can you go without sleep before it starts to affect you?
Sleep deprivation can take a toll on our cognitive abilities, motor skills, and even cause depression. In this post, we’ll cover the effects of not getting enough sleep in different stages and the importance of proper sleep.
Sleep deprivation is defined as not getting enough sleep or getting less than the recommended amount of sleep per night, which is usually from 7 to 9 hours. Short-term sleep deprivation, like pulling an all-nighter, will mostly just affect your energy levels the next day. It’ll impact your cognitive functions, such as memory loss, reduced concentration, and lower productivity.
However, long-term sleep deprivation can have drastic health effects, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, or diabetes. Sleep deprivation can be caused from common factors like stress, jet lag, or a large workload. However, in some cases, it can root from a chronic issue like heart failure or cancer. The most common reasons for sleep deprivation are:
There are two main types of sleep deprivation, acute and chronic sleep deprivation. Acute sleep deprivation is what you experience when you have one or two nights of poor sleep. This can be from a temporary cause like cramming for a test or working late. The side effects of acute sleep deprivation include drowsiness, memory loss, trouble focusing or concentrating, and irritability. You can easily recover from this type of sleep deprivation by getting enough sleep the next night.
However, chronic sleep deprivation is having trouble sleeping for multiple nights for over a week. It lasts for an extended period, not just a few nights. Chronic sleep deprivation is usually the result of an underlying health issue and is more harmful than acute sleep deprivation. The side effects of this condition include the risk of heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, or neurological issues like Alzheimer's or Parkinson’s disease. Long-term sleep deprivation weakens the immune system - it is best to consult with a doctor if you’ve experienced sleep deprivation for more than 3 nights a week.
Sleep is one of the most important aspects of our lives, but many people do not get enough of it. For some people, it can be difficult to get the recommended hours for reasons like having a newborn, demanding job, or a health issue.
The recommended amount of sleep varies based on your age. Children between 6-12 years old usually need about 10-13 hours of sleep per day. Teens need 8-10 hours per day, while adults need anywhere from 7-9 hours per day. But this changes depending on if you’re pregnant or have a medical condition, like cancer or heart disease. In order to be at your best, it is imperative that you make sure to get a sufficient amount of sleep every night.
On average, you can stay awake for about three days before it becomes detrimental to your health and you will need to sleep. However, the negative impacts of sleep deprivation will start appearing after 18 hours without sleep. The longest documented case of a successful recovery from sleep deprivation was in 1964. A 17-year old boy named Randy Gardner stayed awake for 264 hours, which is 11 days, for a science experiment.
During this experiment, his health was monitored by a sleep researcher and a medical neuropsychiatric, who both reported serious cognitive and behavioral results. These results included moodiness, paranoia, hallucinations, memory loss, trouble focusing, and by the sixth day - he even struggled to speak clearly. After breaking the record, Gardner slept for 14 hours followed by another 10 hours the next day - making his sleep recovery a total of 24 hours! It was reported he made a full recovery of his sleep deprivation symptoms. However, a few years later, he stated that he suffers from severe insomnia because of his sleep experiment. Generally, it takes almost two weeks for the average person to lose the effects of sleep deprivation and be able to function at an optimal level.
In 2013, Stanford University found that people who go without sleep for three days were as impaired as those with a .08 blood alcohol level. The study concluded that the combination of psychiatric and cognitive disorders among those who were deprived of sleep is similar to those seen among alcoholics, or people with obsessive-compulsive disorder and other uncontrollable urges.
The symptoms of sleep deprivation start happening within the first 24 hours of being awake. However, they get worse with every succeeding hour you spend awake. Here is how sleep deprivation can affect you in a chronological order, if you stay awake from 1 to 3 days.
Unfortunately, pulling an all-nighter or being awake for more than 24 hours is common - there are many times we’re up all night to meet a deadline at work or study for a final. Besides the usual daytime drowsiness, your cognitive functions are the first thing to take a hit, as your brain becomes slower and sluggish. You’ll start performing tasks slower, lose focus or concentration, and get easily irritated, and unmotivated. As your brain struggles to function, your reaction times become slower as well, which can be dangerous as it increases the risk of accidents and injuries. Your mind goes into a state called local sleep, where certain brain functions stop working.
At this stage, cortisol, the stress hormone, is commonly produced. As a result, your heart rate gets faster. Blood pressure increases, and stress levels will significantly become higher. As a result, your irritability, demotivation, and frustration, will also increase. You’ll experience slight cognitive impairment, where it’ll be hard to speak clearly, as well as become uncoordinated and clumsy. It’ll be hard to move properly so going out or driving aren’t recommended.
You’ll also start to experience microsleeps, which is an involuntary quick nap that can last from 1 to 30 seconds. Microsleep can happen during the day, even if you’re in the middle of an activity. This can be very dangerous if you’re driving, in the kitchen, or outside. Because of these sleep attacks, your body will have trouble functioning properly.
Besides extreme fatigue, your cravings for sugar or foods that are high in carbs will increase - for a final attempt to raise your energy levels.
Three days without sleep will take a serious toll on your emotional and mental state. You’ll start experiencing episodes of paranoia, hallucinations, and feelings of depression and anger. Your mind will become foggier and cognitive functions will worsen, resulting in difficulty communicating with others or speaking at all.
Microsleep episodes will increase, making it very difficult to focus or concentrate on anything. You will also have physical symptoms like puffy eyes, dark circles, and headaches. It is recommended to prevent yourself from reaching this stage because the longer you are without sleep, the worse it’ll impact you.
If you have trouble sleeping because you get frequent sleep interruptions or your bed isn’t comfortable, you should work on preparing your bedroom for better sleep. It is important to make sure your room is dark, quiet, and at a cool temperature before you sleep. Try to eliminate distractions like light, noise, or waking up with night sweats.
Additionally, your mattress may be making it hard to fall asleep if it is uncomfortable. If you wake up with joint pain or stiffness - this is usually a sign that you need a new mattress. The Puffy Lux Mattress is a 6-layer memory foam mattress that properly supports and contours to your body as you sleep, relieving pressure from key pressure points and reducing body strain. Additionally, it contains a cooling gel-infused layer to keep you cool all night long, getting rid of night sweats. Now that your bedroom is prepped for sleep, you should consider practicing sleep habits that make you feel relaxed like taking a warm bath, going for an evening walk, or meditating, to reduce stress levels and ensure you get quality sleep - without interruptions.
Now that you understand how long can you go without sleep and the impacts it has on your cognitive functions, physical health, and mental state - it’s time to fix your sleep schedule. Even though it’s hard sometimes, consider trying and sleeping and waking up at the same time every day to promote a healthier circadian rhythm.