It is a no brainer that sleep is an essential part of every living being’s cycle. Whether it’s a human or animal, sleep is the most important thing to help us function on our day to day lives. But the question as to how long can a human being actually go without any form of sleep at all remains unknown, even with all these scientific experiments being conducted from left to right from rats to actual human test subjects, still, scientist haven’t cracked the code as to how long specifically one person’s body can survive without rest or sleep at all.
In this article, we’ll find out the answer to the question: How long can you go without sleep? I will also tackle the importance sleep brings to us and how it affects and helps us on our everyday lives and also, the side effects and consequences of having not enough or no sleep at all. I will also go through some famous experiments and results that have been conducted throughout the years regarding the subject matter and their end results.
Why is Sleep Important?
As a living, breathing human being, our bodies are designed to take in a lot of tasks and jobs as well as store knowledge and new information every single day. One way of coping through all these tasks is through the form of sleeping; it’s a process where our body and a certain percentage of our brain goes to hibernation for specific period of time to replenish and store energy for the following day.
Sleeping is vital for our blood cells, specially the white blood cells that’s responsible for keeping our immune system strong and ready to fight our potential bacteria or viruses that may harm our body system. Sleep does not only apply to humans; it is also applicable for complex animals. A study has shown that marine animals such as fish, whales and dolphins have a gift called “un-hemispheric slow-wave sleep” which lets them shut down half of their brain while allowing the other half to remain conscious that helps them to continue swimming in the ocean.
What is Microsleep?
Some of you might have experience this phenomenon called as “microsleep”. Personally, I have suffered with this ordeal myself one too many times as an insomniac. This is when our brain forces us to sleep for short periods of time without us actually knowing it. This is a common symptom to insomniacs to which the brain suddenly shuts down but our eyes are wide open as if we are in a trance or some may have even described as zombie-like state.
Microsleep can last for a few seconds or a few minutes, during this process we may look like we are awake but inside our brain shuts down for short periods of time disabling us to respond to any outside information. A lot of people might actually experience microsleep, which is referred to as the feeling of “blanking out” for a couple of seconds and you might feel like you’ve lost a great amount of time with no recollection of sleeping at all.
Microsleep can also cause sleep walking, where unconsciously we are unaware of our body’s movements because the important parts of our brains are shut off for a brief period of time. This condition can be dangerous to individuals who suffer from this trance-like state for a long time.
What Happens When We Don’t Get Enough Sleep?
Imagine if you’ve lived to be seventy-eight years old, which means you’ve slept roughly for twenty-five years in your life. That is if you are a healthy human being. But, what if that’s not the case at all? What actually happens to our mind and body when we miss out on even the tiniest bit on our sleep? It’s not as simple as that because at some point our brains will eventually make us sleep. After a couple of days our sleep will become greater than our urge to eat. There are lots of things that can happen and will happen if a human being skips even just a few hours of sleep. Here are few basic side effects of lack of sleep.
Lack of Sleep May Result To:
- Irritability or mood swings
- Irrational and unreasonable thinking
- Severe memory loss
- Severe anxiety
- Weight loss
Fatal Familial Insomnia
Fatal Familial Insomnia of FFI prevents some people from falling asleep at all, in fact, 40% of the world population are affected by this illness. The disease destroys the area of the brain that controls sleep which is called the thalamus. People who suffer from FFI will only have progressive insomnia and after a while they will start having severe hallucinations that will eventually cause confusion similar to dementia patients and will unfortunately result to death.
The average lifespan for someone who has this rare yet terrifying and tragic disease is just eighteen months. But even for a regular person, a lack of sleep can have severe effects on the body and can even be fatal. After missing just one night of sleep, the first thing you will quickly notice is a decrease in cognitive function. First and foremost, side effect includes lack of attention, concentration, reasoning, problem solving and the ability to learn new information. Perhaps what’s even scarier is that when you miss out on your sleep, you can actually wipe out a whole day from your memory.
Sleep is very important for forming and processing new memories, our memory suffers when we are deprived of sleep even for the tiniest bit. Sleep deprivation also weakens our sense of resolve which is why it is an effective form of torture, hence, that’s why we see in shows and movies that keeping a captive or hostage awake for several hours weakens their sense of reason.
It’s believed that during our sleep, that is the time where our brain organizes, consolidates and stores that day’s memories and what we learned, not getting enough sleep will result to just forgetting those memories and new information all together. “Chronic sleep loss” or what is commonly known as insomnia has been linked to a significant high increase of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, obesity and depression. Some studies also show that 90% of the people who suffer from insomnia also suffer from serious health conditions.
Physical Side Effects of Sleep Deprivation
Bodily functions are also affected by sleep or lack of it. For instance, our wounds heal faster when we are asleep; this is because the regeneration process is faster when we are sleeping. We also secrete more anabolic hormones when we are asleep and it produces “protein synthesis” helping our muscles to grow. Sleep also helps us look young on the outside. It is during sleep that the growth hormone releases new tissue, keeping wrinkles away.
When we don’t get enough sleep, our body doesn’t get enough opportunity to repair itself so, people who have insomnia or FFI age faster than average people who get regular sleep. Not only does the tissue repair slows down, our body also releases the stress hormone known as cortisol which breaks down skin collagen; the protein that keeps our skin, smooth and bouncy. Sleep loss even a few missed hours per night can also cause yellowish skin, puffy eyes, fine lines and dark circles.
Also known as circadian clock is the daily rhythm we have to anticipate or adapt to the dramatically different conditions during day in and night. This is also a disorder that’s called Circadian Rhythm Disorder which is one of the many sleep disorders that are caused by our internal biological clock being off. Each person has their own internal body clock and for the typical average human, most of us have our clocks on eleven at night and wake up at seven in the morning.
When that internal clock becomes misaligned with our social clock such us our work schedule or social schedule, that can potentially trigger a sleep disorder like insomnia. Interestingly, jetlag is also a form of sleep disorder, especially for those individuals who travel a lot. Not having an aligned circadian clock can cause serious issues both internal and external.
How Long Can Someone Actually Stay Awake For?
All living creatures need sleep but the amount of it varies. In the animal kingdom, we have what we call the “base metabolic rate” or BMR. Rats have a very high BMR despite their size and might need fourteen hours of sleep a day while elephants only need three hours a day to get by.
Healthy adults can consciously avoid sleep for prolong periods without suffering any ill effects. In 1964, a seventeen year old American student named Randy Gardner managed to stay away for two hundred and sixty-four hours or eleven days without using any stimulants, although, this record was beaten by a man from South of England named Tony Wright who managed to stay awake for two hundred and sixty-six hours, beating Randy by just two hours.
During his attempt to stay awake the whole time, he developed blisters on his feet and claimed to even have mastered the process of “un-hemispheric sleep”, shutting down one half of his brain at a time. He also claimed to be hallucinating and seeing owls and pixies floating and dancing around him.
Almost everyone who attempted to stay awake for long periods of time hits a road block at around eleven days, which seems to be the body’s limits, in fact, many researchers also tried to stay awake over the years and the average period they reach is eight to ten days after which the sleep becomes too overwhelming to continue fighting against. There haven’t been any known recorded cases of someone staying awake for longer than eleven consecutive days, but if they did, could it result to death?
In one university in Chicago, a study has been conducted on rats. They were put on a rotating disk which was suspended over a pool of water, sensors were also attached to the rats to record their brain activities as the study continues and then the computer proceeds to analyze those brainwaves detect when the rats are on the verge of falling asleep, at which point, the disk would spin faster; meaning that if the rats didn’t steady themselves in the rapidly spinning disk, they would definitely fall into the water.
This harsh treatment prevented the rats from sleeping at all for the risk of falling into the pool of water, eventually, all the rats that underwent the experiment died due to no sleep. The average lifespan of the rats was eleven to thirty-two days.
Whole Body Hypermetabolism
The scientist that conducted the sleep research on the rats believed that the cause of their death was “whole body hypermetabolism”, a condition that causes extreme weight loss and if not aided right away can result to death. It’s highly likely that if a human is to try to stay awake for much longer than eleven days, the hypermetabolism will start to kick in which can cause one’s demise.
Cases of people dying from hypermetabolism are not as high as people from dying due to natural causes. This is because no one has ever died from sleeplessness itself but the side effects that carry it does. Although, prompted, this condition will fatally cause death. That is why the Guinness Book of Records has studiously stopped keeping records for sleep deprivation presumably because this can really cause serious damage to our neuroanatomical and physical aspect.
The purpose of this article is to inform the mass majority out there about the dangers of trying to stay awake of lack of sleep for long periods of time. The things listed above are just the tip of the iceberg if one attempts to go on without proper hours of sleep, and we all know how sleeping helps our body cope to our daily activities and tasks so it is essential that an average human being get seven to eight hours of sleep per night. Some people have troubles sleeping and alter their internal body clock by sleeping during the whole day and being awake during the entire night, which is also not advisable.
The body is like a plant, for plants, it’s photosynthesis but for us humans its protein synthesis. Our entire genetic make-up depends on tissue repair, white blood cells reproduction, memory and knowledge storage as well as physical response capabilities. The people who have tried staying awake for a long time suffered a great amount of consequences that resulted on their body eventually shutting down at one point, thus, showing that sleep is an extremely important part of our system.
The lesson here is that, there other factors than also affect our sleep pattern such as work, social life, and health issues which may interfere with getting regular amounts of sleep. But for these problems, solutions have surfaced throughout the years to aid those complications and help a person to try and at least achieve that regular good night sleep, thanks to science and research, insomniacs don’t have to suffer in silence and worry about the side effects of not having to sleep properly. After all, who doesn’t love a regular and healthy good night sleep?