Sleep is one of the most vital functions of our body. It is necessary for our overall health, brain function, and the general physiology of the body system. However, because we live in a hectic world where we’re overflown with obligations, deadlines, side jobs, or simply too many of the cat videos online, we’re getting increasingly less sleep.
One of the biggest worldwide health concern is sleeplessness and sleep disorders. Insomnia is the leading sleep deprivation condition, and one of the main causes of heart conditions, depression, anxiety, high blood pressure, or kidney disease.
But, if we don’t sleep enough, it would be natural for our body to crave sleep, right? Well, numerous people, because of sleep disorders, don’t experience this and can go days without proper sleep. This begs the question; how long can we go without sleep, before it starts affecting our health? In the following paragraphs, we’ll try to find the answer, so let’s get started!
Sleep And Body Functions
Sleep is a complex process, that is essential and completely involuntary, which further proves its importance to our health. Alongside breathing, eating food, and drinking water, sleeping is a function without which we cannot live and properly function. When we sleep, our body enters the so-called recovery mode that is essential for the way we function when we’re awake.
For example, during sleep, our muscles and joints relax, the immune system recovers, our awareness levels are low and the entire body is in the ‘sleep mode’.
If we’re sick, our body uses sleep to determine and fix what is wrong, giving us time to recuperate and recover energy.
Sleeping acts as a pit-stop to our hectic, day-to-day life.
It is important for our mental and physical health, and without it, we’re putting ourselves at risk of developing an array of mental and physical disorders and conditions.
How Long Should You Sleep?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (COD), it is recommended that adults (between 18 and 60 years) need a minimum of 7 hours of sleep.
Children, depending on the age need to get anywhere between 10 and 17 hours of sleep. It could be said that the younger you are, the more sleep your body requires.
Still, the results of the COD research and survey have shown that more than 23% of adults get less than 5 hours of sleep, and over 64% of people that are 65+ receive less than 7 hours of sleep.
It is also recommended that a person shouldn’t stay awake for more than 17 hours. Anything more than that starts to take its toll and ruins our health, sometimes slowly and sometimes quickly. Sleep deprivation, as well as sleeping too much, can have their short-and long-term effects on our health.
What Is Sleep Deprivation And How Does It Affect Us?
So, if you don’t get enough sleep in a day (or few days) you’re experiencing sleep deprivation and its effects on your body. Sleep deprivation is chronic sleeplessness where a person goes without sleep for several days or sleeps less than 5 hours during the night. Sleep-deprived people aren’t able to enter deep sleep, thus experiencing a decline in their health.
Chronic sleeplessness is shown to affect and change the brain. For example, studies have shown that lack of sleep affects firstly the levels of serotonin, which makes sleep-deprived people prone to serious depression.
Furthermore, there is cognitive impairment, the decline in memory processing and judgment as well as the overall change in brain chemicals. Moreover, the effects of sleep deprivation go beyond brain change. Here’s how sleep deprivation really affects the body;
- Immune system impairment – makes you prone to more frequent colds and flu, and it will take you longer to recover.
- Heart conditions and irregularities – puts you at risk of developing heart disease, causes irregular heartbeating, and puts you at risk of a heart attack.
- Stomach – increases hunger and the activity of stomach acid and puts you at risk for GERD or acid reflux and heartburn.
- Pancreas issues – puts you at risk for insulin resistance and a higher risk of type 2 diabetes.
- Obesity – puts you at risk of gaining weight and developing obesity, because of slow metabolism and increasing fat layers in the body; the less sleep you get, the higher the BMI numbers
- Joints issues – puts you at risk of inflammation, which can lead to atherosclerosis (‘artery hardening) and rheumatoid arthritis.
- Metabolic syndrome – puts you at risk of high blood pressure, cholesterol, and reduced insulin sensitivity. All of this can lead to diabetes and heart disease.
How Long Can You Go Without Sleep?
One Night Without Sleep
24 hours without sleep doesn’t sound too bad; we’ve all done it at some point in our lives (college, for example, or all-night-long parties). However, even though you can go one night without sleep, the sleep deprivation symptoms do start to show even after 24 hours.
Let’s say that after a sleepless night you usually feel like you’re tipsy (as if you have a blood alcohol content of 0.10%, which would make you illegal to drive or operate heavy machinery, for example).
After a one sleepless night, you will feel irritated, stressed, and as if you’re under a certain level of both physical and mental tension. There will also be a loss of concentration, impaired judgment, short-term memory problems, increased blood sugar levels, and immune system impairment.
Note: just because you can stay awake the whole night, doesn’t mean you should.
Two Nights Without Sleep
After 48 hours of being awake, the sleep deprivation effects become more intense. The body starts to shut down, the cognitive performance is surely worse and you will feel beyond tired. The body stops to properly metabolize glucose, the immune system is shutting down and you might start experiencing moments of brief unconsciousness.
Not to mention that your body will start craving more food that is high in carbs, and you might doze off for a few seconds. These microsleep periods happen involuntarily and can last up to 30 seconds.
After two sleepless nights, your body is unable to fight off bacteria and viruses, it is more susceptible to inflammation and illness.
The whole metabolic system is disrupted and at this point, sleep deprivation starts having serious effects.
Now, you can go on without sleep for 48 hours, but the effects will be devastating for your mental and physical health.
Three Nights Without Sleep
At this point, you might start falling asleep without even being aware of it. Involuntary sleep occurs frequently during day three without sleep, and it can cause serious accidents, even if you’re isolated, in your home. Your brain is shutting down in terms of cognitive function, processing memory, information, details, and paying attention. Sleep deprivation at this stage also affects emotions quite thoroughly; people become extremely stressed, irritated, even aggressive and paranoid.
There are even cases of hallucinations and alteration of perception and inability for one to grasp reality. Also, illusions are very frequent as well as misinterpretations.
After 72 hours of no sleep, people have difficulties completing even the simplest tasks, their coordination levels are completely impaired and they have no sense of right or wrong, happy or sad, left or right.
There is emotional and hormonal imbalance, inflexible reasoning, and almost no ability to focus or stay concentrated.
Some Interesting Facts About Sleeplessness
So, Can Sleep Deprivation Kill You?
Chronic sleep deprivation or chronic insomnia are incredibly serious cases of sleeplessness. This means that a person is not getting enough sleep for a period of time, that can exceed even months and years. Long-term sleep deprivation can surely cause numerous physical and mental health risks.
Even though there are no recorded cases of people dying from lack of sleep, studies have shown that people with insomnia are at risk of premature death. People with insomnia usually develop numerous health conditions and diseases, so insomnia can be an indirect cause of death for sure.
Moreover, there have been only few cases (about 100) of people dying from a disease called Fatal Familial Insomnia (FFI). This disease makes it impossible for people to fall asleep, so, after a period of exhaustion, dementia, and coma, people eventually die. The life span of someone with FFI is approximately 18 months.
Read More: Seriously, Can You Die From Insomnia? (Also we introduced the differences between sleep deprivation and insomnia)
What Are The Common Signs Of Sleep Deprivation?
It can be rather easy to spot and recognize that an individual is not getting enough sleep. Here are some of the most common signs of sleep deprivation;
- Extreme fatigue
- Change is the appearance (wrinkles, dark eye circles, droopy eyes, change in complexion)
- Slow response and reaction time
- Inability to speak properly or cohesively
- Tremors, twitches
- Inability to do simple tasks
- Visible irritability and aggressive reactions to ordinary things
- Risky behavior and substance abuse
- Decreased motivation
- Depression and anxiety
- Extreme and frequent mood swings
- Increasing stress levels
- Complete disinterest and no focus
- Frequent dozing off (seemingly not being present in the moment)
- Illusions, hallucinations, paranoia
We can all conclude that people can surely go a few days without sleep, but we must point out that the health effects are catastrophic.
There have been cases where people have voluntarily stayed awake for more than 72 hours, and they have never really been the same. Their sleep-wake cycle was completely impaired and there have been significant psychological effects.
So, just because we can stay awake for a certain time, doesn’t mean we should. We need sleep for a reason, and if we can’t get enough of it, it is important to discuss the issue with a medical professional.