Sleep deprivation can be dangerous — here's how long you can hold off sleep without life-or-death consequences

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  • Sleep deprivation can produce a series of dangerous symptoms, including cognitive losses and anxiety.
  • Loss of sleep has never directly killed someone, but some deaths have been linked to prolonged sleep deprivation.
  • Researchers who studied sleep deprivation in rats found that none of the rats survived longer than 32 days.
  • The National Sleep Foundation says adults should sleep at least seven hours a night.

A lack of sleep can make people unhappy, irritable, and more susceptible to colds, but there is no proof that sleep deprivation ever directly killed someone.

Prolonged exhaustion, though, has been cited as a factor in the deaths of many otherwise-healthy people.

In 2012, for example, a Chinese man stayed up for 11 consecutive nights to watch all of the soccer games in the European Championship. The 26-year-old died in his sleep shortly after, and doctors said a combination of sleep deprivation, alcohol, and tobacco were the cause.

Randy Gardner beat the record for staying awake in 1964, making it into the Guinness Book of Records. Gardner, then 17, was up for 11 days and 25 minutes. Though he did not experience physical symptoms right after his endeavour, he reportedly suffered from insomnia for years.

Many people have tried breaking the record since, but the Guinness Book of Records stopped considering attempts because sleep deprivation can be dangerous.

Loss of sleep can produce a long list of symptoms. Those who sleep less than seven hours per night may show symptoms such as anxiety and depression, and sleep deprivation has been linked to obesity, diabetes, poor decision-making, and decreased concentration.

University of California Berkeley neuroscientist Matthew Walker said in a previous interview with Business Insider that a lack of sleep can also negatively impact one’s cardiovascular health. In the spring, when everyone loses an hour of sleep, the number of heart attacks goes up by 24% the following day, he said.

Some medical disorders can produce sleep deprivation as well. In France, researchers examined a 27-year-old man with Morvan’s syndrome, which causes muscle twitching, weight loss, hallucinations, pain, and sleep deprivation. Scientific American reported that the 27-year-old got “virtually no sleep” for several months in a row. Though he did not feel tired or anxious, the man experienced between 20 and 60 minutes of hallucinations and pain every night.

Morvan’s syndrome can cause such episodes by turning certain nerve cells on and off. There are very few reports of the condition – as of 2011, only 14 had been published.


Read more:
14 science-backed ways to sleep better

Experiments on animals suggest that sleep deprivation could eventually lead to death. In the 1980s, the researcher Allan Rechtschaffen ran experiments on rats at the University of Chicago and found that all of the animals died by the 32nd day of no sleep.

Though researchers did not agree on the cause of death, Slate reported, all of the possibilities were linked to sleep deprivation. Some researchers said the rats’ immune systems failed and allowed bacteria to kill the rats. Others said sleep deprivation led to fatal brain damage, while a third theory argued the rats’ body temperature became so low that they died from hypothermia.

Regardless of the reason, the researchers believed that the prolonged sleep deprivation produced symptoms so severe that the rats could not survive. In humans, researchers have only observed serious psychological effects like hallucinations, as the research has not gone beyond a couple days of sleep deprivation.

The National Sleep Foundation’s most recent guidelines, released in 2015, warn against straying too far from sleep recommendations. The guidelines, which vary based on age, say adults should sleep between seven and nine hours per night to avoid health problems.

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