Randy Gardner is officially the world record holder for the longest someone has gone without sleep. He managed to stay awake for 11 days and 25 minutes.
There are a few other incredible unofficial records including one that lasted 18 days.
If you hope to beat any of these records, it’s going to be very difficult. That’s because your body fights harder to get its well-deserved rest time than it does for food.
You can stay a few days without food but stay up a few hours past your bedtime and your body will begin to complain with fatigue, heavy eyelids and worsening grogginess.
Pull an all nighter and the symptoms get more acute. Your short-term memory suffers, you get irritated easily, energy levels plummet and it gets harder to concentrate at work or in class.
For how long can you keep pushing your body? Is there a breaking point?
The symptoms of sleep deprivation will keep getting worse. Some people have reported hallucinations, paranoia, anxiety and various other effects.
But death is not one of them.
In fact, Randy Gardner seemed perfectly fine after a couple of nights. Follow up tests done weeks and months after the record setting event showed no serious long term effects.
One reason why you can stay for days without sleeping and not die or get seriously ill is that the brain seems to adapt.
Brain scans done on Randy showed that parts of his brain had been catnapping while other stayed awake, a technique used by animals like whales and dolphins.
To be clear, you are probably not going to manage to stay awake long enough for your brain to do this. Keeping Randy awake was a huge effort all on its own.
The real problem with sleep deprivation
To answer the original question, you can only go for as long as you can resist the fatigue and drooping eyelids. For most people, that’s no more than a couple of days max.
You’ll probably not suffer any long-term ill effects.
That doesn’t mean that sleep deprivation is completely harmless. It just depends on the kind of sleep deprivation.
If you sleep for less than 7 hours every night or just sleep on a simple clic-clac sofa, you are not giving your body adequate rest. Your productivity goes down, you feel less energetic, your moods get erratic and you cannot concentrate on your work.
This type of deprivation is the worst and it’s the one most of us experience.
Its effects are even worse in the long term.
Lack of adequate sleep is associated with an increased risk of dementia, obesity, high blood pressure, cancer and many other health problems.
How to avoid sleep deprivation
You may not break any records for the number of days spent awake, but your 4-hour nights are hurting your body and mind.
It’s time to review your sleep habits and make improvements for your health’s sake.
Here are a few helpful tips.
- Determine the right number of sleep hours for you. It’s 7-8 hours for most people but can be less or more for some.
- Establish a proper sleep routine. Adjust your bedtime to make sure you are getting enough sleep.
- Avoid sleep-inhibiting habits like late-evening exercises, caffeine at dinner, nightcaps and using gadgets in bed. The last one is especially a big problem for many people. Set a habit of turning off all devices an hour or two before bedtime.
- Lower your stress levels. Stress and anxiety are major insomnia inducers. Try going for a walk in the evening, doing yoga before sleeping or meditating to reduce your stress levels. And make sure you are not making the anxiety worse by drinking caffeine or looking through social media before going to bed.
- Make your bedroom sleep-friendly. Use heavy curtains to block outdoor lights, lower the thermostat a little and make sure your mattress and bedding are comfortable. Some also find that listening to white noise, soft music or rain sounds helps them fall sleep faster.
If you are unable to resolve your lack of sleep no matter what you do, visit a sleep specialist. You may have a sleep disorder.