On January 8th, 1964, a seventeen year-old high school student named Randy Gardner finished a project that would go down in history as an important monument in sleep science. Intent on winning the San Diego science fair, a city he had only recently moved to, he and his friend Bruce McAllister planned an experiment that would capture the attention of the nation. They intended to answer a question: “How long can you go without sleep?”
And boy did they! On January 8th, Randy Gardner curled up in bed after an astonishing 11 days and 25 minutes of staying awake. On top of winning the science fair, The Guinness Book of World Records declared Gardner’s accomplishment as the longest time a person had gone without sleep, setting the new world record, as Stanford University researcher William Dement monitored the progress of the experiment.
There was excitement about this sleep experiment, but also a sense of fear. “[Gardner’s parents] were very worried that this might be something that would really be harmful to him. Because the question was still unresolved on whether or not if you go without sleep long enough you will die,” Dement said in a 2018 BBC World Service segment. Fortunately, Gardner didn’t die — he simply went to sleep at the end of the experiment for a 14-hour marathon session hooked up to EKGs so scientists could monitor his brain, then went back to his regular sleep schedule after that. From all this hoopla back in 1964, we learned not only the answer to how long can you go without sleep, but what some of the effects of lack of sleep can be.
Sleep Deprivation Effects
Sleep deprivation is a serious issue. Whether your lack of sleep comes from insomnia, obstructive sleep apnea, or just trying to stay awake longer than anybody else in history, the effects are no joke. Sleep deprivation affects your mood, memory, and health, sometimes in surprising ways. And it doesn’t take 11 days and 25 minutes to feel the effects — even a missed hour per night can take a notable toll on your body and brain.
Sleep deprivation can also be caused by snoring — something you might not even be aware of. While quite ubiquitous, snoring is disruptive to your sleep cycles, as it can cause fragmented sleep, disrupting the natural progression through sleep stages. In some cases, snoring can be indicative of sleep apnea (where your snoring actually stops airflow to your brain), but either way snoring is something you should address, lest you unconsciously lose precious sleep hours.
Your Brain on Tired
When you don’t get enough sleep, your cognitive abilities are notably affected — miss a little bit of sleep and you’ll be prone to compromised concentration, working memory, mathematical capacity, and logical reasoning. Nobody wants that!
The tired brain is less functional than the well-rested brain. It seems obvious when you read it so simply, but the results of less-than-peak-performance cognitive ability can result in disaster. Investigators found that at both the 1979 nuclear accident at Three Mile Island and the 1986 nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl were caused in part by sleep deprived workers, the lack of adequate sleep conditions noted as a “significant factor” in the two accidents.
While you’re likely not managing the safety of a nuclear facility, you are likely driving your car most days. According to the CDC, in 2017 alone, drowsy driving contributed to 91,000 car accidents (including around 50,000 injuries and almost 800 deaths!).
Work performance and concentration suffer as well — your short-term memory becomes less acute, your ability to work on a single task for a long period of time suffers, and your boss might catch you nodding off or yawning loudly in a meeting (a bad look, for sure).
Your Body on Tired
Lowered high-level cognitive functioning means you’re less dextrous and less able to concentrate, which means you’ll suffer in your ability to do things that require intensive focus, like threading a needle, doing construction, or going to the gym.
Being sleep deprived has also been shown to increase fatigue and lower daytime energy levels as your body decreases the production of glycogen and carbohydrates that are stored for the day’s physical activities. Without those precious 7-9 hours, you can find yourself unable to muster up the energy you need to be active.
When you sleep, you’re also rebuilding muscle tissue. This is especially important for athletes or those partaking in physical activity — muscles and tissues are rejuvenated during deep sleep, when the blood supply to muscles increases, delivering ample nutrients and oxygen which facilitate muscle growth.
What Are the Signs of Sleep Deprivation
- Need an alarm clock to wake up at a reasonable hour
- Hit the snooze button several times before getting up
- Have a hard time getting out of bed in the morning
- Feel tired by the early afternoon
- Fall asleep in meetings, warm rooms, or lectures
- Feel a constant need to take a nap
- Fall asleep within several minutes of climbing in bed
The Importance of Getting Enough Sleep
The question of how long can you go without sleep is one that can be answered by the importance of REM and deep sleep. These two phases of sleep are important for memory consolidation, muscle health, and much more.
Even one hour of missed sleep can be devastating. UC Berkeley neuroscientist Matthew Walker notes, “Even just the smallest amount of insufficient sleep, we seek health consequences. And I think perhaps, you know, one of the best examples of that small perturbation is one of the largest sleep experiments ever done. It's been performed on 1.6 billion people. It happens twice a year, and it continues to happen. It's called daylight saving time. And in the spring when we lose an hour of sleep, we see a subsequent 24 percent increase in heart attacks. In the fall when we gain an hour of sleep opportunity, there is a 21 percent decrease in heart attacks.”
If you’re wondering how long can you go without sleep because you’d like to pull an all nighter, or you’re thinking about catching that all-night-movie-marathon, think again. Missing out on sleep is no joke, and sleep deprivation’s serious consequences can manifest with even just a single hour of missed sleep. Tuck yourself into bed, throw on a sleep meditation, and get the 7-9 hours of sleep that you need — you’ll thank yourself tomorrow.