What Really Happens If You Don't Sleep?

VOICE OVER: Noah Baum WRITTEN BY: Ben Welton
Sleep is a vital part of everyone's life. Some of us spend long hours taking a nap, catching some Zs and generally resting up. Others sleep for shorter times, unable to slumber for more than six hours at once. But what happens to the human body if you don't sleep? How long can you possible stay awake for, before your health starts to fall?

What Happens If You Don’t Sleep?

Sleep, like food and water, is something that almost every living species needs. And humans are no exception. Doctors generally recommend that anyone over the age of 18 gets between seven and nine hours of the stuff every night, with younger children ideally getting even more. However, for lots of us those numbers are just not realistic, with some sleeping for six or fewer hours on the regular.

While life has a nasty way of interrupting our sleep patterns, there should be no excuse for neglecting your necessary napping. All of our bodies need sleep, and despite what your friends may tell you, you can’t simply “make-up” for lost sleeping hours over the weekend and you can’t properly function without enough hours of decent slumber. The fact that leading politicians regularly claim to operate on as little as four hours sleep is neither impressive, advisable or especially encouraging.

Deep sleep is the level we should all be aiming for, wherein your body repairs itself and builds up energy for the next day. A stage of sleeping which induces REM sleep, or rapid eye movement, it has been shown to boost the metabolism, boost the immune system, and boost the brain’s ability to learn and retain knowledge – while also helping to thwart mental illnesses and some nervous disorders.

Basically, sleep isn’t for the weak, it’s awesome and good for you. And insomnia is not something you should want to suffer from. Losing sleep doesn’t make you fashionably moody or interesting – it just makes you unhealthy, and much more unlikely to achieve your potential. But to truly underscore just how serious sleep is, here’s what can happen if you are sleep deprived.

Currently, the world record holder for the longest time without sleeping is Randy Gardner, a high school student from San Diego, who stayed awake for 264.4 hours, or eleven days and twenty-five minutes, back in 1964. While others have since claimed longer stints, Gardner is still scientifically recognized as having fought sleep for the longest time in human history. Amazingly, he emerged from his extreme efforts with a seemingly fairly favorable bill of health. But he’s a huge exception to an established norm, because sleep deprivation is today linked to a range of significant health issues – from increased risk of heart disease to long-term depression.

Consistently getting less than the recommended amount of sleep per night can first disrupt your ability to focus and concentrate – meaning sleep deprived people are likely to perform less effectively at school or work, and are more prone to accidents. Take driving… Getting behind the wheel while sleep deprived can prove just as catastrophic as driving while drunk, with crashes occurring in the blink of an eye because someone has dropped off into a microsleep, or missed an obvious danger that they would’ve noticed had they slept properly the previous night.

In some cases, sleep deprivation has even played a role in some of the biggest man-made disasters in recent history – including the nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl in 1986, and the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989. While lack of sleep wasn’t solely to blame for either event, it was deemed a contributing factor.

But what about the effects on the human body itself? First off, losing sleep places increased stress on the heart. The sleep deprived are at higher risk of rising blood pressure and hypertension, suffering a stroke, and contracting diabetes. In forcing your body to stay awake for longer than it wants to be, the strain on the heart is perhaps predictable. Diabetes threatens because sleep deprivation negatively impacts your body’s ability to release insulin, the hormone that regulates blood sugar levels. So, with less and less sleep your body releases less and less insulin, therefore increasing those sugar levels.

Next comes the weight gain. With your body-to-brain signals thrown all out of balance, the sleep deprived can feel hungry even after they’ve just eaten – or at unusual times during the day. If your circadian rhythms are out, then your meal-time routines could soon be, too. Not to mention the fact that the increased tiredness can destroy your motivation to exercise.

Sticking with the brain, lack of sleep can also lead to negative mood swings, short tempers or long bouts of sadness, anxiety or even paranoia. This is because, without sleep, your brain has to work that much harder to keep you energized throughout the day – so effective and efficient neural connections are more difficult to achieve.

Your short and long-term memory suffers too, as your overused brain struggles to learn new stuff or remember old information. Toward the end of his world record run, Randy Gardner was reportedly unable to even understand basic math. It has been estimated that as much as 25 percent of specific brain cells perish after prolonged sleep deprivation. Altogether, an overworked and weaker brain, plus an exhausted and sickly body, can trigger mania and psychological conditions like dementia, psychosis, and hallucinations.

According to a 2015 “Psychiatric Times” article, there’s also a frightening correlation between sleep deprivation and suicide. Although the same article concedes that the correlation between regular nightmares and suicide may be greater, it notes a clear rise in suicidal behavior among insomniacs compared to those getting more sleep. Other studies have linked the supposed increase in suicidal thoughts to the delirium that sleep disturbance can cause, especially the auditory and visual hallucinations that can leave people feeling out of control. For similar reasons, there are also suggested links between sleep deprivation and violence. The “Psychology of Violence” journal reported in 2016 that even disrupted sleep can make naturally aggressive people more likely to lash out.

Finally, parasomnias can increase whenever somebody lacks a sleep routine. In their mildest form, these include somnambulism (or sleepwalking), sleep talking, or simply sitting up in bed for no apparent reason. These behaviors are more common in childhood, but between two and four percent of adults are thought to display them. However, some parasomnias have caused people to commit major violent crimes while apparently asleep, while parasomnias in general have been shown to negatively impact memory and brain function. This means that those who suffer from them – including the sleep deprived, who are more likely to experience them – more commonly engage in risky, dangerous behaviors even in their waking hours.

So, Randy Gardner’s world record achievement appears pretty impressive, but it’s not one we’d advise you to try and match. If you do strive to stay up for days, remember this: your body’s insulin production will be thrown into chaos; you’ll place yourself at risk of succumbing to serious physical and mental health conditions; you’re likely to gain weight; and you’ll probably feel depressed. If you are currently suffering from insomnia or interrupted sleep, go and see a doctor today. And there areother options besides medication – including eating a healthy and well-balanced diet, drinking more water, drinking herbal tea, not watching as much TV, and switching off your smartphone at least half-an-hour before bed.

Throughout history, enforced sleep deprivation has actually been used as a form of torture, which tells you everything you need to know about its devastating effects. So, make sure that you’re not missing out. Sleep is for the strong, and it’s vital for your health, happiness, energy and life.