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How Long Can You Go Without Sleep? Here’s What Science Says

Here at Saatva, we’re dedicated to providing you with information to help you achieve optimum sleep. But we couldn’t help but wonder—just how long can a person stay awake?

Keep scrolling for more info on how long you can go without sleep—and what the effects of staying awake for too long are on your health.

How long can humans go without sleep?

The longest recorded time someone has gone without sleep is 11 days or 264 hours.

Back in 1963, then-17-year-old Randy Gardner decided to stay awake as part of his 1963 San Diego Science Fair project experiment. As it turns out, he not only stayed awake for 11 days straight but broke a world record in the process.

When asked if he needed extra sleep in the following days, weeks, and months after staying awake for a recording-breaking 11 days, he had this to say to NPR: “No, not at all. I went right back to the regular mode. Everything was fine. Strange, isn’t it?”

Of course, Gardner is an extreme case. As Healthline notes, it’s unclear exactly how long you can go without sleep—but what is clear is that after about three or four days of sleeplessness, you can start to hallucinate and experience everything from cognitive impairments to psychosis.

Experts don’t ever recommend trying to stay awake for that long. Although it’s very unlikely to die from prolonged sleep deprivation, it could happen.

How much sleep do you need?

How much sleep should you really be aiming for? According to the National Sleep Foundation, healthy adults between 18-64 need anywhere between seven to nine hours of shut-eye each night. Adults 65 and older should aim for at least seven hours of sleep.

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends teenagers get at least eight hours a night. In comparison, kids ages 6-12 should sleep for nine to 12 hours in 24 hours.

What causes sleep deprivation?

About 20% of U.S. adults don’t get enough sleep. Causes of sleep deprivation vary, but the most common reasons are shift work, restricted sleep time, and medical conditions.

Shift work

Depending on your life and work demands, shift work could be a necessity. But working a non-traditional schedule can be hard on your body. Graveyard shifts, early morning shifts, split shifts, or rotating shifts disrupt the body’s circadian rhythm.

According to the Cleveland Clinic, about 10%-40% of shift workers develop Shift Work Sleep Disorder (SWSD), a long-term condition with the following symptoms:

  • Constant sleepiness, both on and off the job
  • Lack of energy
  • Insomnia
  • Feeling tired despite getting a full night’s sleep
  • Depression and/or moodiness

Only a doctor can diagnose this type of sleep disorder. If you’re a shift worker, check out our shift work sleep guide.

Restricted sleep time

There are a lot of things that can impact your ability to get enough sleep. For example, if you care for an elderly or disabled loved one, have a demanding job that requires lots of late nights, or live in a noisy neighborhood, these factors can all make it harder to get the recommended amount of sleep.

Medical conditions

The inability to sleep is also linked to various medical conditions that cause chronic pain, such as rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, and fibromyalgia. (Read our guide on how to keep chronic pain from ruining your sleep.)

Other health conditions, such as diabetes, acid reflux, heart disease, depression, and anxiety also make it harder to get the recommended amount of sleep.

Short-term effects of sleep deprivation

Even a small amount of sleep deficiency comes with health risks. If you suffer from sleep deprivation, these short-term symptoms may be part of your daily life:

  • Irritability
  • Anxiety
  • Lack of energy
  • Forgetfulness
  • Lack of concentration
  • Poor decision-making abilities
  • Longer reaction times

Long-term effects of sleep deprivation

Over the long haul, sleep deprivation can lead to serious medical issues.

Per a report from the National Institutes of Health, sleep loss—which the researchers define as getting less than seven hours of sleep a night—is linked to anxiety, depression, heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, impaired glucose tolerance, and alcohol use.

The good news is, you can take steps to overcome sleep deprivation and restore your health. This starts with figuring out whether you’re actually sleep-deprived. Take our sleep deprivation quiz to find out.

Once you’re done taking the quiz, read up on some surprising tips that can help you drift off into a deep, restorative slumber.

Finally, here are 14 things you can do today to help you start sleeping better tonight.

Theona is a passionate health and wellness freelance writer with over six years of experience. She's written for various health and wellness brands and publications.