How Long Can A Person Last Without Sleep?

How long can a person last without sleep?

Sleeping is not just a pleasure, it is above all a need. Falling asleep and dreaming have been enigmatic for us human beings since we have knowledge of our being. None of our functions stop when we fall asleep, except those of full consciousness. For the rest, the whole body continues to be active and so does the mind.

Science has shown that the ideal is to always sleep eight hours a night. However, it is equally true that many people do not respect this pattern. There are those who rest only four hours or less, and it is enough for them to feel like new, and those who need more than 9 hours to feel that they have really rested.

The amount of hours of sleep changes with age, with habits and with the characteristics of the person. When we are born, we need numerous hours of sleep. As we get older, we get used to short, intermittent sleep. There are no fixed schemes in this.

There are questions that do not yet have a definitive answer. One of them is: how long can a person last without sleep? The few data in this regard were extracted from voluntary experiences. It would be unethical to force a person not to sleep for an extended time just to check the limits.

What is sleep for?

Many of us would never ask ourselves why we need sleep. It is obvious to us that the body gets tired during the day and, therefore, needs to rest in the evening. The most natural way to get such rest is sleep.

Woman sleeping on a boat

However, if we think about it, it’s not that obvious. In reality, neither the body nor the brain is “deactivated” when we go to sleep. It is true, however, that we reduce our external mobility and that our muscles reach a state of relaxation that they are unlikely to reach otherwise. We lie down and move just to be more comfortable and look for a better position. At the same time, however, all the organs continue to function.

The brain maintains a great deal of activity while we sleep. We dream, our mind builds scenarios and situations that involve thoughts and emotions, sometimes very intense. Some people talk or walk even when they sleep. A part of the brain also stays awake. If there is a loud noise or danger arises, an area of ​​our brain alerts us to wake us up.

Simply put, when we go to bed, we stop moving from place to place and keep a low level of attention.

Science has not yet been able to determine exactly why we sleep. Sleep is known to affect myelin production, the formation of new neuronal connections, and the elimination of brain waste. However, so far we do not have a complete and exact answer reported in a scientific article.

What happens when we don’t sleep

It has happened to everyone from time to time not to get enough sleep. They have fatigue, feeling of unreality and sometimes headache, nausea and dizziness. Mental activity also becomes slower and concentration is easily lost.

Woman with headache due to insomnia

When the waking time gets too long, other symptoms also appear. These include: blurred vision, muscle pain, weakened immune system, tremor of the hands and legs, increased cholesterol levels, anxiety, depression, migraines, increased blood pressure, short temper and memory problems. In even more severe cases, hallucinations and psychotic behavior are frequent.

Some factors indicate that not sleeping could cause brain damage. This non-definitive conclusion was reached following a research carried out in Sweden. 15 adult volunteers, with an average weight, were asked to spend a sleepless night. The group was monitored after the sleepless night and another night during which they had slept for 8 hours. The goal was to identify what changes were being generated.

The researchers found a high concentration of two molecules associated with the brain in the blood of individuals. This discovery led them to think that there was a deterioration of the brain tissue. After a night of sleep, however, the blood composition was normal. The experiment did not allow for long-term changes to be observed.

Woman in bed counting sheep

The time limit without sleep

There is no exact answer to the question “how long can a person last without sleep?”. Officially the record is held by Randy Gardner. In 1965, when he was just a teenager, he spent 264 hours without sleep, or 11 days. He was doing a job for a science festival. The case was documented by psychiatrist J. Christian Gillin, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California.

The student was 17 years old and the study of the case stated that as time passed, he developed various symptoms. He presented with cognitive deficits, speech and vision problems, and even hallucinations. According to some versions, there are people who have spent more time without sleeping. For example, there is talk of an English woman who was awake for 18 days to win a bet. These data, however, have not been proven.

It is also known that there are around 40 families worldwide who suffer from a rare disease called fatal familial insomnia. It is a genetic disease that alters the nervous system and generates “holes” in the nervous tissue. Those suffering from this pathology at some point can no longer sleep. After a few weeks as a sleepwalker, he weakens and eventually dies.

Can Lack of Sleep Lead to Death?

People with fatal familial insomnia die after some time without sleep, but not from lack of sleep. Generalized brain damage causes death. Not being able to sleep is one of the manifestations of this disorder, but not the central axis.  

In the 1980s, an experiment was conducted at the Allan Rechtschaffen Sleep Center of the University of Chicago. In this study, the consequences of lack of sleep were observed in a group of guinea pigs. The animals were forced not to sleep by applying electric current each time they tried to fall asleep. The result was that between 11 and 32 days most of the animals had died or were in agony.   

Sleepless man

Scholars agree that lack of sleep makes people a little “crazy”. It is natural for normal brain functions to be impaired. The person gets stressed, is very irritable, starts to have erratic behaviors and also has hallucinations. Sometimes he starts saying incoherent sentences. However, when the person regains his usual sleep hygiene, all these symptoms disappear and no visible sequelae remain.

Despite this,  it is not absurd to think that extreme lack of sleep can lead to death. Severe damage to the nervous system would potentially be harmful to several organs in the body. This would trigger a chain that could have a fatal outcome. It is also believed that once the limit is reached, no person would resist without sleep. Even against his will, he would surrender to sleep.

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