How Long Could You Stay Awake?

A lack of sleep is dangerous. We’re often told not to drive whilst tired and falling asleep at the wheel can be fatal. During World War II many sleep-deprived pilots fell asleep mid-flight and crashed their plane on the way home from the war zone. In fact, you may be horrified to hear that in a study, 56% of consumer aircraft pilots admitted to falling asleep in the cockpit whilst the plane was in autopilot. It’s fair to say that our body needs sleep but how long could you theoretically stay awake for? Could a person die if they were forced to stay awake for a long time? And what happens to your mind and your body when you miss out on sleep? Let’s find out. If you live to 78 you will have spent around 25 years asleep. But what if you can’t sleep? Well It’s not as simple as that. Eventually your brain will make you sleep. After only a couple of days the urge to sleep will become greater than the urge to eat. At this point you might experience a phenomenon known as microsleep. This is when your brain forces you to sleep for a short time without you being aware. Microsleep is a common symptom amongst insomnia sufferers. Your brain suddenly shuts down, but your eyes remain open. It can last for a few seconds or a few minutes. During microsleep the person’s eyes usually remain wide open but they will have a blank, distant stare. They will go into a brief, zombie-like state and won’t respond to any outside information. You’ve probably experienced microsleep, if you’ve ever drove for a long period of time on the motorway or highway, on very little sleep. It’s that feeling when you blank out for a couple of seconds and it feels like you lost a brief period of time but you don’t remember actually falling asleep. As you can probably imagine, microsleep is the cause of many accidents. Microsleep is your brain’s way of going “Okay dude I know you’re trying to stay awake at the moment, but I’m really tired, you carry on as you are, I’m just gonna catch a few z’s for a minute. Okay?” But when it comes to wanting to sleep, some people don’t have a choice. A rare genetic disease called Fatal Familial Insomnia or FFI, prevents people falling asleep at all. It affects around just forty families worldwide. The disease destroys the area of the brain that controls when we sleep, the thalamus. Sufferers of FFI will experience progressively worse insomnia, after a while they start to hallucinate and eventually they will because extremely confused, similar to dementia patients, and then, they will eventually die. The average lifespan for someone with this tragic and scary disease is just eighteen months. But even for the regular person a lack of sleep can have severe effects on the body and can even be fatal. After missing just one night of sleep the first thing you will notice is a decrease in cognitive function. First and foremost, a lack of sleep impairs attention, concentration, reasoning, problem solving and your ability to learn. But perhaps what’s even scarier is that by missing out on sleep you can wipe whole days from your memory. It’s believed that during sleep our brain consolidates, organises and permanently stores that day’s memories and what we learnt. If you don’t get enough sleep, instead of storing those memories forever, your brain will simply forget them altogether. But that’s only scratching the surface. Continual sleep loss over a period of several days or more can have substantially worse effects on the body. Chronic sleep loss or insomnia has been linked to a significant increase in heart disease, strokes, diabetes, obesity and depression. In fact, a study showed that over 90% of people with insomnia also suffer from another serious health condition. Oh and sleep also keeps you looking young. It’s during sleep that the growth hormone is released that repairs tissue, keeping those wrinkles at bay. When you don’t get much sleep, specifically slow-wave sleep, your body doesn’t get an opportunity to repair itself, so you age faster. Not only that but when you miss out on sleep your body releases the stress hormone cortisol which actually breaks down skin collagen, the protein that keeps your skin smooth, bouncy and looking mighty fine. Sleep loss, even a few missed hours per night, causes droopy, yellowish skin, puffy eyes, fine lines and dark circles. So now you know why you really, really shouldn’t miss out on sleep. But how long could you, theoretically stay awake? If you were forced to stay awake by an evil scientist who strapped you to a chair, Clockwork Orange-style, and gave you a quick electric shock every time you started to drift, how long would it take before your body gave up, and what would be the consequence? The answer to the question how long can humans stay awake for is 264 hours, or about 11 days. In 1947 a 16-year-old high school student in San Diego, California named Randy Gardner set the world record for the longest scientifically documented case of someone going without sleep, without using stimulants. Gardner stayed awake for 264 hours, or 11 days. Before Gardner’s attempt there were many attempt to stay awake for a prolonged period and since then there have been many more. The current record holder is Tony Wright, a man from the south of England who broke Garner’s record by just two hours, staying awake for 266 hours. Noticing the trend here? Almost everyone who’s attempted to break the record hits a road block at around 11 days. That seems to be the bodies limit. In fact, many researchers have attempted to stay awake over the years and the average period they reach is eight to ten days. After which the urge to sleep becomes far too overwhelming, to continue fighting against. There haven’t been any recorded cases of someone staying awake for longer than eleven consecutive days. But if they did, could it result in death? In the sleep laboratory at the University of Chicago an experiment was conducted on rats to find out if sleep deprivation can kill. Rats were put on a rotating disc which was suspended over a pool of water. Sensors were attached to the rats to record their brain waves and a computer program was setup to analyse those brain waves and detect when the rats were about to fall asleep. At which point the disc would spin faster, meaning if the rats fell asleep and didn’t steady themselves on the rapidly spinning disc, they would inevitably fall into the water below. This harsh treatment prevented the rats from sleeping at all, for risk of falling into the water. I know, us humans do some rather horrendous things in the pursuit of knowledge. So was this horrific experiment worth anything? What did we learn? Well, all the rats that underwent the experiment eventually died from a lack of sleep. The average lifespan of the rats was 11-32 days. The scientists conducting the experiment believed the cause of death to be whole body hypermetabolism, a condition which causes extreme weight loss, and if not remedied, death. The hypermetabolism was most likely brought on by the lack of sleep. It’s highly likely that if a human were to stay awake for much longer than eleven days then hypermetabolism would kick in and cause one’s eventual demise. Or some other equally extreme condition brought on by sleeplessness. Although it’s believed to have happened at some point in history, after all, sleep-deprivation has been used as a method of torture. There has never been a case well documented enough, to study the effects of forcing someone to stay awake and so, scientists aren’t exactly sure what would happen. But, just like the rats, the general consensus is that if one were to stay awake for much longer than eleven consecutive days, they would most certainly die. The cause of death wouldn’t be sleeplessness, there’s no such condition, it would be some horrific side-effect brought on from not sleeping. For example, hypermetabolism, as was the case with the rats. Although, the body’s urge to sleep is so strong that this almost never happens, so there is very little evidence to be able to know for certain what exactly would be the cause of death, at least in the case of humans. But, just to be safe, try not to miss out on your precious beauty sleep, because if you do it enough, it very well, could, kill you.

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