What Would Happen If You Didn’t Sleep?

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What Would Happen If You Didn't Sleep
What Would Happen If You Didn’t Sleep? Graphic © healthpowerboost.com. Background image: Pixabay (PD)

Do you get enough sleep? According to figures by Statista, nearly 1 in 2 U.S. adults report sleeping less than the recommended 7-9 hours. [1][2] And there are several reasons for this—from tending to new babies to binge-watching your favorite show through the night or working overtime.

Regardless of your “excuse” for sleep deprivation, quality sleep is a non-negotiable. Diminished sleep can have lingering adverse effects on your health—sometimes with severe consequences.

“Regular sleep deprivation isn’t just a minor inconvenience. Staying awake can cause serious bodily harm,” explains Claudia Aguirre during a TED-Ed lesson. “When we lose sleep, learning, memory, mood, and reaction time are affected. Sleeplessness may also cause inflammation, hallucinations, high blood pressure, and it’s even been linked to diabetes and obesity.”

Let’s learn more about why some quality shuteye deserves a place at the top of your health priorities.

The Importance Of Quality Sleep

While there is still a lot we don’t understand about sleep, it’s important for several biological reasons.
Research shows that a good night’s sleep plays a critical role in cellular restoration, energy conservation, brain function, emotional well-being, metabolic functions, immunity, and heart health. [3][4][5][6][7] Quality sleep also helps reduce the risk of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s. [8]

According to an article published in Neurochemical Research, some of the health benefits of sleep can be linked to the recently discovered glymphatic system. [9] This system goes ‘live’ in your brain behind closed eyes and helps wash away toxic substances—including amyloid beta, which is associated with an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Think of the glymphatic system as a plumbing system that clears the garbage from your brain. It gives a new meaning to the phrase “sleeping it off.”

Claudia Aguirre notes that one of the by-products that build up in the brain from metabolic processes is adenosine. The chemical is believed to play a role in your urge to sleep, which may explain why adenosine receptor antagonists like caffeine promote wakefulness. [10]

What Happens When You Don’t Sleep?

Research shows that lack of sleep can increase your risk of early death from health problems like stroke, injuries, and accidents. [11][12][13] Severe cases of sleep deprivation may also lead to rare but fatal disorders such as sporadic fatal insomnia and fatal familial insomnia. [14]
Here are some of the effects of sleep deprivation on your body:

• 24 Hours: Most people will start to experience the adverse effects of sleep deprivation after 24 hours as the brain attempts to cope with not having an opportunity to rejuvenate itself. Some expert suggests that the experience is comparable to someone with a 0.1% blood alcohol concentration. [15] Some effects include irritability, impaired judgment, drowsiness, memory deficits, and decreased hand-eye coordination.

• 36 Hours: After a day and a half without some shuteye, your body functions are affected. Everything that happened at the 24-hour mark worsens, and your health is put at risk. You may experience elevated blood pressure, hormonal imbalances, cognitive impairment, extreme fatigue, and delayed response to environmental stimuli. [16][17]

• 48 Hours: Going 2 nights without sleep leads to increased disorientation, and your immune system may take a hit as your NK cells (natural killer cells) decrease. [18] This may leave you at risk of bacterial and viral infections. Staying away for 48 hours may also force you into “microsleeps,” whereby your brain involuntarily puts you into sleeplike states. [19]

• 72 Hours: At 72 hours, microsleeps get more intense, and you experience major cognitive deficits, depressed moods, increased heart rate, and extreme fatigue. [20]

• Past 72 Hours: The amount of time someone can go without sleep is not clear—partly because testing the limits is too dangerous. The longest time someone has gone without sleeping is 264 hours (roughly 11 days), when teenager Randy Gardner achieved the feat in 1964 as part of a science fair project. [21] This resulted in a significant decline in mental processes. Young Gardner also experienced paranoia and hallucinations.

Takeaway? Get Some Quality Shuteye!

Getting quality sleep regularly is not a luxury. It’s a necessity for optimal health.

Your sleeping patterns and duration vary from person to person—largely depending on your age. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) maintains sleep duration recommendations for different age groups. [2]

Make efforts to improve your sleep hygiene for some quality shuteye. This includes sticking to a regular sleep schedule, being physically active, sleeping in a conducive environment, avoiding alcohol and caffeine at night, not eating large meals a few hours before bedtime, and putting away blue-light-emitting devices at night.

If you’re still facing difficulties sleeping despite your best attempts to improve your sleep hygiene, consider consulting a healthcare professional for help.



[1] Statista. Adult Weekday Sleep Duration (US): https://www.statista.com/statistics/1309084/adult-weekday-sleep-duration-us/

[2] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: https://www.cdc.gov/sleep/about_sleep/how_much_sleep.html

[3] Brinkman, J. E., Reddy, V., & Sharma, S. (2022). Physiology of Sleep.[Updated 2021 Sep 24]. StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK482512/

[4] Goldstein, A. N., & Walker, M. P. (2014). The role of sleep in emotional brain function. Annual review of clinical psychology, 10, 679: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4286245/

[5] Morselli, L. L., Guyon, A., & Spiegel, K. (2012). Sleep and metabolic function. Pflügers Archiv-European Journal of Physiology, 463(1), 139-160: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22101912/

[6] Kurien, P. A., Chong, S. C., Ptáček, L. J., & Fu, Y. H. (2013). Sick and tired: how molecular regulators of human sleep schedules and duration impact immune function. Current opinion in neurobiology, 23(5), 873-879: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3766463/

[7] Hoevenaar-Blom, M. P., Spijkerman, A. M., Kromhout, D., van den Berg, J. F., & Verschuren, W. (2011). Sleep duration and sleep quality in relation to 12-year cardiovascular disease incidence: the MORGEN study. Sleep, 34(11), 1487-1492: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22043119/

[8] National Institutes of Health. (2018). Sleep deprivation increases Alzheimer’s protein. NIH Research Matters, April, 24: https://www.nih.gov/news-events/nih-research-matters/sleep-deprivation-increases-alzheimers-protein

[9] Jessen, N. A., Munk, A. S. F., Lundgaard, I., & Nedergaard, M. (2015). The glymphatic system: a beginner’s guide. Neurochemical research, 40(12), 2583-2599: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4636982/

[10] Singh, S., & McKintosh, R. (2021). Adenosine. In StatPearls [Internet]. StatPearls Publishing: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK519049/

[11] Cappuccio, F. P., D’Elia, L., Strazzullo, P., & Miller, M. A. (2010). Sleep duration and all-cause mortality: a systematic review and meta-analysis of prospective studies. Sleep, 33(5), 585-592: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2864873/

[12] von Schantz, M., Ong, J. C., & Knutson, K. L. (2021). Associations between sleep disturbances, diabetes, and mortality in the UK Biobank cohort: A prospective population‐based study. Journal of sleep research, 30(6), e13392: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/jsr.13392

[13] Khot, S. P., & Morgenstern, L. B. (2019). Sleep and stroke. Stroke, 50(6), 1612-1617: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6640639/

[14] Cracco, L., Appleby, B. S., & Gambetti, P. (2018). Fatal familial insomnia and sporadic fatal insomnia. In Handbook of clinical neurology (Vol. 153, pp. 271-299). Elsevier: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/B9780444639455000155?via%3Dihub

[15] Lamond, N., & Dawson, D. (1999). Quantifying the performance impairment associated with fatigue. Journal of sleep research, 8(4), 255-262: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/10646165/

[16] Grandner, M. A., Alfonso-Miller, P., Fernandez-Mendoza, J., Shetty, S., Shenoy, S., & Combs, D. (2016). Sleep: important considerations for the prevention of cardiovascular disease. Current Opinion in Cardiology, 31(5), 551: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27467177/

[17] McCarthy, M. E., & Waters, W. F. (1997). Decreased attentional responsivity during sleep deprivation: orienting response latency, amplitude, and habituation. Sleep, 20(2), 115-123: https://academic.oup.com/sleep/article/20/2/115/2731607

[18] Oztürk, L., Pelin, Z., Karadeniz, D. E. R. Y. A., Kaynak, H., Cakar, L., & Gözükirmizi, E. (1999). Effects of 48 hours sleep deprivation on human immune profile. Sleep research online: SRO, 2(4), 107-111: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11382891/

[19] Hertig-Godeschalk, A., Skorucak, J., Malafeev, A., Achermann, P., Mathis, J., & Schreier, D. R. (2020). Microsleep episodes in the borderland between wakefulness and sleep. Sleep, 43(1), zsz163: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31328230/

[20] Liu, Q., Zhou, R., Liu, L., & Zhao, X. (2015). Effects of 72 hours total sleep deprivation on male astronauts’ executive functions and emotion. Comprehensive psychiatry, 61, 28-35: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0010440X15000905

[21] National Technical Reports Library: https://ntrl.ntis.gov/NTRL/dashboard/searchResults/titleDetail/AD645678.xhtml

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