Getting adequate sleep is extremely important for both physical and mental health. However, some people intentionally deprive themselves of sleep for various reasons or are unable to sleep for extended periods due to medical conditions. This raises the question: what is the longest someone has gone without sleep?
What is considered normal sleep?
To understand extreme sleep deprivation, it is first important to establish what is considered normal sleep. The National Sleep Foundation recommends that adults get between 7-9 hours of sleep per night. However, the exact amount of sleep needed varies from person to person. Some people function well on 6 hours of sleep, while others require 9 or more hours to feel fully rested. The key is getting enough sleep consistently to feel refreshed and avoid daytime sleepiness.
Short-term sleep deprivation
In the short-term, many people experience sleep deprivation from time to time. It is common to get only a few hours of sleep when pulling an “all-nighter” to study for an exam or finish a work project. Short-term sleep deprivation usually lasts anywhere from one night to a few weeks of insufficient sleep. The effects of short-term sleep deprivation may include:
- Problems concentrating
- Decreased performance
- Increased errors
Getting back on a normal sleep schedule can usually resolve the effects of short-term sleep deprivation. However, continually not getting enough sleep may lead to chronic sleep deprivation.
Long-term sleep deprivation
Long-term sleep deprivation occurs when someone consistently fails to get adequate sleep over a longer period of time, usually months to years. Some of the causes may include:
- Sleep apnea
- Restless leg syndrome
- Frequent night shifts or long work hours
- Poor sleep habits
- Underlying physical or mental health conditions
The effects of long-term sleep deprivation tend to be more pronounced and severe than short-term deprivation. These may include:
- High blood pressure
- Higher risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes
- Memory and cognitive impairment
- Mood changes like depression and anxiety
- Lowered immune function
- Increased errors and accidents
Getting adequate sleep consistently over time can often reverse the effects of chronic sleep deprivation. Seeking treatment for any underlying conditions contributing to sleep deprivation is also recommended.
Extreme sleep deprivation record
Some individuals have deliberately deprived themselves of sleep for record-setting periods of time. However, these extreme cases involved meticulous preparation and medical supervision to avoid fatal consequences.
The longest verified period without sleep was 264 hours (about 11 days) by Randy Gardner in 1965. As a teenager, Gardner stayed awake for 11 days straight under scientific observation to set this record.
|Total Hours Awake
|264 hours (11 days)
|276 hours (11.5 days)
|479 hours (19 days)
Randy Gardner set the initial record as part of a science fair project to demonstrate the effects of sleep deprivation. During the 11 days, he experienced concentration lapses, paranoia, and mood changes typical of chronic sleep deprivation. However, he recovered without apparent long-term health effects after sleeping for nearly 15 hours straight when the experiment ended.
Other individuals, such as Toimi Soini and Maureen Weston, have reportedly broke sleep deprivation records since Gardner’s 1965 record-setting experiment. However, these extended periods without sleep have not been verified to the same degree under scientific observation.
Consequences of extreme sleep deprivation
Prolonged sleep deprivation can have serious consequences, both in the short-term and long-term.
Within the first 24 hours of sleep deprivation, people usually experience:
- Fatigue and lethargy
- Decreased alertness and concentration
- Impaired memory and judgment
- Blurry vision
- Slower reflexes
After several days without sleep, signs and symptoms worsen to include:
- Irritability, anxiety, paranoid thoughts
- Dizziness and lightheadedness
- Slurred speech and confusion
- Tremors and muscle twitches
- Auditory and visual hallucinations
If sleep deprivation continues longer:
- Cognitive deficits become more severe
- Mood is increasingly unstable – depression, mania, suicidal thoughts
- Paranoia and hallucinations become more vivid
- Increased risk of seizures
After a week or more without sleep, psychosis typically sets in with a complete disconnect from reality. Professional medical care is required at this stage to prevent fatal consequences.
Studies have found that prolonged wakefulness is similar to the effects of alcohol intoxication. Being awake for 16-19 hours produces impairment equivalent to a blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.05%. Remaining awake for 20 hours equates to being legally drunk with a BAC of 0.08%.
Long-term sleep deprivation increases the risk for medical conditions like obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, and mental illness. The chronic stress of inadequate sleep may also take years off one’s lifespan.
Fatal familial insomnia
A very rare genetic disorder called fatal familial insomnia causes progressively worsening insomnia that ultimately leads to death. It is caused by prion protein mutations and passed down through families.
Symptoms begin with insomnia that becomes total sleeplessness over time. As the disease advances, additional neurological symptoms appear:
- Loss of appetite
- Rapid weight loss
- Low blood pressure
- Night sweats and fevers
- Balance and coordination problems
- Slurred speech
Once symptoms start, affected individuals live for 6 months to 3 years without ever sleeping again. Severe insomnia leads to immune system weakening, coma, and death. There is currently no cure.
Can lack of sleep be fatal?
In rare cases, lack of sleep can directly cause death. However, more commonly sleep deprivation increases the risk for fatal accidents or exacerbates underlying conditions that can lead to death.
Studies have found sleep deprivation impairs driving ability similarly to being intoxicated. Drowsy driving is responsible for thousands of traffic accident fatalities each year. Without sleep, attention, reaction time, and decision-making abilities are too impaired to drive safely.
Inadequate sleep also raises the risk of fatal medical conditions like heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and obesity. The increased inflammation and stress hormone changes from sleep loss accelerate damage to the cardiovascular system over time.
For those with mental illness, lack of sleep often worsens psychiatric symptoms. This can lead to suicide in some cases. Even for healthy individuals, the mood changes from sleep deprivation increase the risk for suicidal thoughts and behavior.
The rare prion disease fatal familial insomnia directly causes death from total sleep loss. However, most people who die from extreme sleep deprivation have an underlying medical condition or psychiatric illness that is exacerbated by lost sleep.
Purposeful sleep deprivation
In some circumstances, people purposefully deprive themselves of sleep. However, this is an unhealthy approach with serious risks.
Sleep loss for productivity
Some people cut back on sleep to have more time for work, school, or other activities. However, sleep deprivation reduces productivity and performance. Getting adequate rest allows people to function at peak effectiveness during waking hours.
Staying up all night for parties, school events, or gaming is common among teens and young adults. But consistent all-nighters interfere with healthy brain development and functioning in younger people.
Military branches sometimes use sleep deprivation as part of intense training regimens. However, studies show that restricting sleep impairs decision-making abilities and training effectiveness in soldiers and trainees.
Sleep deprivation has been used as an interrogation technique to weaken prisoners physically and mentally. However, international laws now prohibit sleep deprivation for interrogation purposes. It is considered unethical and an illegal form of torture.
Misguided weight loss
Some people deliberately cut back on sleep to lose weight. But chronic sleep deprivation often causes weight gain due to its effects on metabolism and appetite.
In all cases, purposefully avoiding sleep has more risks than benefits. Prioritizing healthy sleep is pivotal for physical health, brain function, productivity, performance, mood, and longevity.
Tips for avoiding sleep deprivation
Sleep deprivation is widespread, but can be minimized through proper sleep habits. Here are some tips for getting healthy rest each night:
- Maintain a consistent bedtime and wake time, even on weekends
- Develop a relaxing pre-bed routine like reading
- Limit screen time and stimulating activities before bed
- Cut back on caffeine, alcohol, heavy meals, and exercise in the evenings
- Make the sleep environment cool, dark, and quiet
- Invest in a comfortable mattress and pillows
- Keep the bedroom reserved just for sleeping and intimacy
- Nap 15-20 minutes in the early afternoon if needed
- Seek treatment for any conditions interfering with sleep
Making sleep a priority by consistently getting 7-9 hours in a 24-hour period can prevent chronic sleep deprivation.
The longest verified time anyone has gone without sleep is 264 hours or about 11 days, set by Randy Gardner for a science fair project in 1965. Reports of longer sleep deprivation up to 19 days exist, but have not been scientifically confirmed.
While rare individuals have deliberately deprived themselves of sleep for records, the majority of people with extreme insomnia have underlying medical conditions preventing normal sleep. Consistently getting sufficient, high-quality sleep is essential for physical and mental wellbeing.
Sleep deprivation, particularly long-term, has numerous detrimental effects that worsen the longer someone goes without rest. While lack of sleep is rarely directly fatal, it increases the risk of seizures, accidents, cardiovascular disease, suicide, immune dysfunction, and other potentially deadly consequences.
Purposefully avoiding sleep has little benefit but substantial risks. Prioritizing healthy sleep habits can help prevent the negative effects of sleep loss in both the short and long-term.