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If you’re a new parent, a college student, or you just suffer from insomnia, you probably know what it’s like to go long periods of time without sleep. But what happens when you stay awake for a full 24 hours? Does it really do that much harm to your body? After all, you can catch up on all that sleep on the weekend, right?
Sleep deprivation, while common, can become a serious problem when it continues over long stretches of time. Besides depleting your energy and weakening your daily productivity, sleep deprivation can lead to other serious health issues such as cognitive impairment, heart disease, obesity, and mental illness.
This article will dispel any myths you may have heard about staying awake for 24 hours and give you some tips on how to improve your sleep hygiene habits and, ultimately, your health.
24 Hours Without Sleep
The longest anyone has gone without sleep was 264 hours— a 17-year old boy in California stayed awake for a staggering 11 days. After this incident, the Guinness Book of World Records removed this record from their books so nobody else would attempt it— probably because going without sleep for this long can be fatal.
After 24 hours without sleep, your body may begin to experience tremors and your basic motor skills will probably be impaired. In the middle of the night, your body temperature naturally decreases for optimal sleep— if you’re still awake at this time, you will begin to feel more fatigue as a result of this temperature decrease.
By the end of the 24 hours, doing any task that requires concentration or is even slightly monotonous may be extremely difficult. At this point, the fatigued person will need to rely on caffeine, loud music, or their friends to stay awake since the body will do everything it can to go to sleep.
It’s also possible to experience hallucinations or paranoia at this point, although more common symptoms include impaired decision-making skills, decreased hand-eye coordination, increased muscle tension, and decreased vision and hearing abilities.
36 Hours Without Sleep
Your sleep-wake cycle works on a very strict schedule— after all, there’s a reason it’s also known as your circadian rhythm. If you disturb this rhythm, you’re bound to feel the effects.
During the 24 hours in a day, chemicals in your body are rising and falling to prepare you for sleeping and waking. For example, your body releases and accumulates adenosine during the day, which makes you sleepy. By the end of the day, the build-up of adenosine signals you to lie down and go to bed, at which point the adenosine levels drop and the cycle starts over.
However, if you stay awake beyond that 24 hour-cycle, your adenosine levels will keep building, causing you to feel groggy.
Your hormones are affected by your all-nighters, too. That’s why sleep deprivation is linked to a higher incidence of obesity. Leptin is the hormone that tells your body it’s “full” and can stop eating. Ghrelin does the opposite— when your stomach is empty, it secretes this hormone to signal your brain it’s time to eat.
When you go without sleep, your leptin levels drop and your ghrelin levels rise, causing you to overeat. When you’re tired, you’re also less likely to exercise, kickstarting a vicious cycle.
After 36 hours, all of these hormonal and chemical imbalances begin to take their toll, and your attention span starts to decrease as well. Your speech can become worse at this point.
48 Hours Without Sleep
After 2 nights without sleep, you may begin to experience “microsleep.” Your body will begin to enter phase 1 of the REM cycle, albeit briefly, as it tries to initiate a full night of sleep. These short spurts of sleep can throw off your concentration and make you feel disoriented when you “wake up” from them.
After two straight sleepless nights, you are at a higher risk for accidents because your reaction time and responsiveness are incredibly depleted. According to the National Safety Council, drowsy driving is the cause of 100,000 crashes every year.
One study from 2016 found that shift workers who experienced sleep deprivation had increased susceptibility to infectious diseases, like the cold or flu— as a result, this can have a negative impact on the economy and workforce.
72 Hours Without Sleep
At this point, you’re lucky if you can still stand on two feet. Most people will not be able to resist falling asleep after 72 hours— the body will do absolutely everything it can get some shut-eye.
After 72 hours, your executive functions and mental processes will decrease to almost nothing (executive functions refer to the functions of your brain that help you pay attention and make judgments). Even simple tasks are nearly impossible to finish, and some might even experience paranoia and hallucinations after this long.
A 2010 study published in the journal Sleep found that some sleep-deprived patients had trouble recognizing human emotions and facial expressions in themselves and others. That’s right— even your emotional processing can take a hit after you resist rest for so long!
What If I Have Insomnia?
While most of us can avoid all of these side effects by sticking to a consistent sleep schedule and establishing better sleep habits, some are plagued by a constant feeling of fatigue and sleeplessness— poor sleep is their normal. If you struggle with insomnia, both acute (temporary) and chronic (long-term), there are some solutions.
Acute insomnia is usually solved by establishing healthy sleep habits, such as establishing a strict bedtime routine, dimming the lights in your bedroom, avoiding any devices that emit blue light (which disrupts melatonin production), and decreasing or completely avoiding caffeine consumption within 4-6 hours of bedtime.
You should only do relaxing, calm activities close to bedtime, since an increased heart rate can keep you up long past when you want to be awake, leading to other health problems.
Now, if you suffer from chronic insomnia, you follow the above-mentioned tips to improve your sleep hygiene, but your sleeplessness may stem from other issues below the surface. Most insomnia-sufferers also struggle with anxiety— talk to a healthcare professional about your most effective treatment options.
How Much Sleep Do I Need?
A 2010 study examining the long-term effects of sleep deprivation concluded that 20-25 hours without sleep has an immensely negative impact on cognitive function, response time, and even speech. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has found that adults who get less than 7 hours of sleep per night are more likely to develop obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, coronary heart disease, stroke, and mental illness.
Seven hours seems doable enough, but according to a CDC press release from 2016, 1 in 3 adults still aren’t getting enough sleep. We can blame this rise in sleep deprivation on electronics, our busy lives, or other circumstances, but the bottom line is that we don’t prioritize sleep. Perhaps reading about what happens to your body after losing a certain amount of sleep will help you re-arrange your schedule and get those precious seven hours of rest.
Thankfully, the CDC has released sleep length recommendations based on age, so you don’t have to guess how much sleep is best for you. However, everyone has different circumstances and needs, so refer to this guide with a grain of salt. An Olympic athlete may need much more than 7 hours of sleep per night, while someone with a young child will probably get fewer hours of sleep than they need, at least for a little while.
|Age||Recommended Hours of Sleep Per Day|
|0-3 months||14-17 hours|
|4-12 months||12-16 hours|
|1-2 years||11-14 hours|
|3-5 years||10-13 hours|
|6-12 years||9-12 hours|
|13-18 years||8-10 hours|
|18-60 years||7 or more hours|
|65 and older||7-9 hours|
Sleep Better and Longer
As you can see, going without sleep for too long is a big deal— it leads to a host of other problems and can even cause sleep disorders such as insomnia to develop. While a lack of sleep has become commonplace, its short-term effects can morph into long-term health issues if ignored.
If you struggle with getting the recommended amount of sleep, establish healthy sleep hygiene habits starting today! You’ll be on your way to a better night’s sleep in no time.
Meg Riley is a Certified Sleep Science Coach and writer/editor for Sleep Junkie. After graduating from Penn State University, Meg began writing about the mattress industry and the science behind getting a good night's sleep.