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How Long Can You Go Without Sleep? Body Functions and Hallucinations

In our modern-day society, sleep can be hard to come by or hard to surrender to for any number of reasons. In a high-tech, fast-paced world such as our own, too many of us suffer from impractical schedules, all-night study sessions, and unyielding pressure from friends, family, and self to be the next big success. Such living conditions and standards quickly lead to sleep-depriving disorders such as anxiety, mania, and chronic stress to keep us awake at night with a perpetual list of concerns. For those unfortunate individuals that suffer from insomnia (about one in three people) sleep won’t come even if they want it to.

But what can you do? Sleep deprivation is a common part of life that strikes more often for some than it does for others. Sure, you can try to get to bed earlier, you can talk to your doctor about medication, you can pay big bucks for a professional sleep assessment, but even so, you’re still going to find yourself in situations that call for a little less sleep, like a newborn baby or an unflinching deadline.

All you can really do is try to keep your sleep schedule consistent when you can, provide your body with a cool, quiet, and comfortable place to rest, and don’t try to push yourself without sleep for too long.

Chances are, you’ve experienced first-hand how your body is affected by a sleepless night, but are you aware of the dangers that come from a prolonged lack of sleep? You’re about to find out.

How Long Can You Go Without Sleep?

It’s a tricky question — one that is not so easily answered. If you’re wondering how long your body can stay awake for without completely and involuntarily shutting down, the world record is 264 hours (just a little more than 11 days)!

In 1964, a high school student by the name of Randy Gardner tested the limits of his body and mind by staying awake as long as he could for a high school science experiment. Apparently, Gardner went 264.4 hours without sleeping, which remains as the official world record that was ever scientifically documented.

Although it was an impressive feat, his experiment did not come without consequences.

How Long Can You Go Without Sleeping Before Your Body is Negatively Affected?

24 hours.

Research shows that the negative effects of sleep deprivation don’t often take longer than 24 hours to occur — except in some rare medical cases, like the 27-year old man who went months at a time without sleep.

After just 24 hours without sleep, you’ll start to notice a lag in cognition. Your memory will falter, your thoughts will become sluggish, and it may be difficult to maintain a single line of thought. Your judgment will be affected, your decision-making will become sloppy, and you’ll likely experience a decline in hand-eye coordination.

If you’ve only experienced these side effects in mild forms, then you may not truly grasp the severity of them. A recent study that was published in the International Journal of Occupational Medicine and Environmental Health suggests that a mere 24 hours without sleep is a worthy comparison to an alcohol intake of 0.10%, and the research implies that the condition worsens with every hour that the body is continuously deprived of sleep. This means that sleep-deprived individuals can quickly and easily become a danger to themselves or others — especially if said individuals are behind the wheel of a car, getting the late-night burrito that they so deserve after three consecutive nights of non-stop studying or working back to back shifts.

And that’s only 24 hours in!

What Causes Sleep Deprivation?

There are many factors that can contribute to sleep deprivation. Here are a few:

  • Stress: If you’re worried about something, it’s easy to end up lying awake at night thinking about it, leading to a bad night’s sleep and a loss of sleep.
  • Sleep Habits: If you go to bed at vastly different times, take long naps during the day or consistently work in bed you can disrupt your sleep schedule.
  • Work: If you work late or have to work overnight you can easily slip into being sleep deprived.
  • Environment: Your sleeping situation plays a big role in how much you sleep at night. Things like a noisy neighborhood, a light-filled bedroom or an uncomfortable mattress can all contribute to sleep deprivation.
  • Stimulation before bed: Participating in activities that stimulate your brain, such as using screens, drinking caffeine or exercising can all contribute to you having a harder time falling asleep and increase your chances of experiencing sleep deprivation.

Sleep Deprivation Stages

There are two main stages of sleep deprivation: acute and chronic.

Acute sleep deprivation is what you would feel if you had one or two sleepless nights. Here are some of the common negative effects of acute sleep deprivation:

  • More drowsiness and fatigue
  • Shorter attention span
  • Hard time focusing and concentrating
  • More risk of accidents (workplace or car related)
  • Trouble staying awake
  • Mood swings and easily angered
  • Reduced cognitive function
  • Memory lapses

While you usually can recover from acute sleep deprivation by sleeping well the following night, chronic sleep deprivation can be much more problematic. Chronic sleep deprivation occurs when you don’t get enough sleep over a long period of time. This can lead to some potential negative long-term effects:

  • Increased risk of heart disease and strokes
  • Greater risk of diabetes
  • Potential weight gain and even obesity
  • Weaker immune system
  • Higher blood pressure
  • Greater risk of mental disease such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease
  • More physical pain
  • Constant sleepiness

What’s So Bad About Sleep Deprivation?

There are several reasons why sleep deprivation can be unhealthy. When you don’t get enough sleep, it interferes with your body’s 24-hour biological clock, known as the circadian rhythm. This internal clock signals to your body when it’s time to sleep and when it’s time to be awake. When your circadian rhythm is off, you can feel tired and unwell during the day. You can also have trouble sleeping, which prevents you from getting the REM sleep that your body needs. During REM sleep, your brain activity increases, and your brain goes through processes that help retain your memories.

How Long Can You Go Without Sleep Before Hallucinating?

After just a few days without sleep, your mind can begin to conjure up all kinds of hallucinations, which can also become a dangerous side effect to staying awake. Research shows that hallucinations often occur after about 72 hours without sleep and such hallucinations can be experienced in a number of different forms, which we’ve listed below.

  • Auditory hallucinations are imagined sounds, often taking the form of one or more voices.
  • Visual hallucinations are seen. These are less common than auditory, but they do occur.
  • Olfactory hallucinations cause you to imagine smells that aren’t there.
  • Somesthetic or tactile hallucinations involve a sense of touch that never actually occurred.
  • Gustatory hallucinations cause the illusion of taste — usually fowl or unpleasant.

In addition to this range of hallucinatory consequences, you can expect plenty of other harrowing side effects after a few days without sleep. Your concentration will diminish along with your motivation to accomplish even the smallest tasks. Perception will warp, paranoia may kick in, and your body experiences multiple physical side effects that begin to negatively impact your internal organs.

How Long Can You Live Without Sleep Before Death?

As it currently stands today, there is no known human death that was directly caused by a lack of sleep. There were, however, several rats that died in a sleep-deprivation experiment in the lab of Allan Rechtschaffen, a researcher at the University of Chicago. In the 1980’s, Rechtschaffen conducted an experiment in which rats were kept alive for a total of 32 days before they died. The exact cause of death is argued to this day, but one theory is agreed upon more than others: a lack of sleep can lead to the death of a human, indirectly or otherwise.

Why is this?

The reasoning behind this theory calls for common sense and a slight knowledge about what happens to the body when we’re asleep. You see, when you turn out the lights and shut your eyes, your body enters into an invaluable state of rest and repair.

As you dream, your muscles grow and repair themselves, muscle tissue mends and strengthens, hormones synthesize, and your brain processes information and prepares for another day of information overload.

Sleep Better

A well-known sleep researcher by the name of Wilse Webb once referred to sleep as “the gentle tyrant: It can be delayed but not defeated.”

Wise words from a wise psychologist.

We understand how busy life can be, but don’t intentionally delay your sleep! Treat your body to a good, long night of rest each and every night to reap the benefits of what a deep slumber has to offer your physical and mental health. If you’re having trouble sleeping through the night, we know one sure-fire solution. Get a new mattress.