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What would happen if we didn’t sleep?

24th September 2018

Slumber Centre

We know when we haven’t slept well enough. We may yawn, rub our tired eyes and find ourselves gravitating towards the coffee machine after one or two sleepless nights. But what would happen to our bodies if we didn’t sleep for a whole week?

Most of us sleep for 6 to 9 hours each night, leaving 15 to 18 hours of being awake and going about our day to day business. Even though we might be feeling a little grumpy throughout the day, we are usually okay and can function as normal. It’s at the 24 hours mark where things become a little more difficult for our bodies…

Day 1

The first day without sleep actually has some surprising results. Research has shown that our mood generally picks up around the 18-20 hour mark. We may start to become elated and giddy as the dopamine (feel good receptors) levels in our brain increase whilst trying to compromise for a lack of sleep.

However, these benefits are relatively short lived. Pretty soon after, our ‘body clocks’ start to notice that something isn’t quite right. After one night awake, our sense of time is altered and we may start to become confused about what time of day it actually is. Our sensitivity to light and brightness is increased and bright lights become hard to look directly at. This level of sleep deprivation will also lead to impaired coordination, memory and judgment making our daily tasks far more difficult than they need to be. Not only will we look physically tired and be yawning regularly, but we may also feel easily irritated or disappointed, potentially putting strain on work and personal relationships.

Our risk of being involved in an accident drastically increases at this point because our brains simply aren’t alert enough to identify the possible dangers involved in these physical tasks. Driving is strongly advised against when feeling sleep deprived. Our coordination, judgement and reaction times are severely reduced, drastically increasing your chances of being involved in an accident. It is estimated that 20% of vehicle accidents are caused by sleep deprivation. British researchers also found that driving after 17-18 hours with no sleep is as harmful as driving with a blood alcohol level of 0.05%, the legal limit in most European countries.

Day 2

Things start to become more serious at this point. Physical health may start to be impaired at 48 hours without sleep. At this point, our body’s ability to metabolise glucose is severely reduced meaning energy levels becoming increasingly low. We will start to look ill, pale and clearly sleep deprived.

High levels of inflammatory markers are also found in the blood stream when you go two days without sleep, contributing to an increase in blood pressure. As well as this, our ability to fight of infection is limited as the body requires quality sleep to generate disease fighting cells.

48 hours with no sleep may also cause the body to fall into periods of microsleep. These are moments where the brain momentarily switches off and consciousness is lost for several seconds. Microsleeps only last for a couple of seconds and typically occur while doing a monotonous task like driving, reading a book, or staring at a computer screen.

Day 3

Three days without sleep is actually a very difficult stage to reach. No matter how much we try to stay awake, most of us would find ourselves falling fast asleep after this amount of time without no sleep. If we were to stay awake for this long, we could expect major lapses in concentration and perception. Even a simple conversation would be difficult to maintain.

Hallucinations have also been reported when people manage to stay awake for three days. Whether visual or auditory, our dreams will start to infiltrate our wakeful hours as our brains try and simulate the essential REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep.

Rare medical conditions can develop and actually make it difficult to get to sleep, even after being awake for so long. Some people have reported suffering from ‘Exploding Head Syndrome’ after long periods of no sleep. It’s not quite as bad as it sounds, but some people can experience extremely loud noises, such as a gunshot or thunder claps, when drifting off to sleep after being awake for lengthy periods of time. People who are mentally and physically fatigued are more likely to experience this sensation.

Day 4 and beyond…

Reaching four days without sleep, let alone a whole week, is borderline impossible. Our bodies physically cannot go this length of time without falling asleep at the first chance it can. Unless there was someone physically keeping you awake, most of us wouldn’t have been able to stay awake even past 24 hour. Our bodies require sleep to function and will start to physically shut down if we were to deprive it of sleep for this long. It’s really not recommended by anyone.

If we somehow managed to last this long, the simplest of tasks would become impossible and the body would begin to shut down on its own accord.

11 days with no sleep?

In 1964, American scientist Randy Gardner set the record for the longest continuous time a human has stayed awake. Gardner managed to go an incredible 11 days 25 minutes without sleep! Amazingly, even though he did suffer from short term insomnia symptoms like those above, Gardner reported no long term medical issues resulting from his science experiment.

This shouldn’t mean you should disregard the importance of sleep. It’s highly recommended that adults regularly get 7-9 hours of sleep a night so that we can feel well rested and be physically fit and healthy.