Written by Nectarsleep editorial team
Last Updated on Feb 22, 2023
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The record for the greatest amount of time a human went without sleeping was a little over 11 consecutive days. There isn’t a definitive time that science has confirmed how long a human can survive without sleeping. Doctors have confirmed that sleep deprivation sets in within the first 24 hours and can become dangerous after just one day as your normal daily tasks, such as driving, become exponentially more dangerous.
Countless studies and research go into the science of sleep. Rightly so! Poor sleep and insomnia are so harmful, yet so common it deserves the attention of experts. We all need a good night’s sleep.
The National Sleep Foundation recommends at least seven hours of sleep for the average adult. The number of hours is just as important as the quality of sleep. Power naps can be great, but they can’t totally make up for poor sleeping patterns and sleep disorders.
Sleep is as natural as eating, drinking, and breathing but, to be honest, there’s so much we still don’t know about what goes on in the brain during sleep. However, scientists have answered a few of the more common questions about sleep. Questions like, how long can a human go without sleep? How many hours should you be sleeping? What happens to the body when we sleep? How do we get rid of sleep apnea once and for all?
|Age Group||Recommended Hours of Sleep|
|0 - 3 months||14 - 17 hours|
|4 - 12 months||12 - 16 hours (including naps)|
|1 - 2 years||11 - 14 hours (including naps)|
|3 - 5 years||10 - 13 hours (including naps)|
|6 - 12 years||9 - 12 hours|
|13 - 18 years||8 - 10 hours|
|18 - 60 years||7 or more hours|
|61 - 64 years||7 - 9 hours|
|65 years and older||7 - 8 hours|
Before all the research and science behind sleep bore fruit, it was a common belief that the brain pretty much “shut down” when a person went to sleep. Thanks to technology, having the ability to measure and track brainwaves, to name a few, that has now been debunked.
There are two main phases of sleep: the NREM sleep or non-rapid eye movement sleep, and the REM sleep or the rapid eye movement sleep. On any given night, a sleeping person goes through multiple cycles of the two stages. The NREM stage is considered the resting state of the brain where the brain recovers after an entire day of work. New research shows that “resting” doesn’t necessarily mean less active. Although no dreaming occurs during the NREM phase, there’s so much more that goes on in our brains and bodies that do not stop for deep sleep.
REM sleep, also called dreaming sleep, is the phase which is characterized by deep sleep and even more intense brain activity. The motor function may be suspended at this stage, save for the quick back and forth, up and down movements of the eyes behind the eyelids (hence rapid eye movement), but the brain is tirelessly working. The brain activity is the same as, if not more than your brain activity while awake. This is the stage of sleep where dreams occur. Physically, the blood flow to the brain also increases. This stage doesn’t last long before it transitions back to the “resting” NREM phase, and another sleep cycle begins.
Food and water are essential for survival. Yet, the human body is so extraordinary that it will do its best to survive in instances of great deprivation. We have all heard stories of survivors found in lifeboats who survived weeks or months with the smallest of provisions. In fact, an average human can probably go about a week without water, and three weeks without any food, however, there are many variables to that. It depends on the person’s health, the weather at the time, and more.
But what about sleep? How long can a person go without sleep? The short answer, as mentioned above, is about 11 days. The long answer, however, is it is different from person to person. But after several days without sleep, no one would be able to function. Simply put, sleep deprivation death can happen. Scientists continue to study the effects of sleep deprivation.
When you look at the big picture, there are many conditions that are linked to chronic sleep deprivation and erratic sleep schedules, some of them fatal. Fatal familial insomnia, often caused by an inherited gene mutation, for instance, can progress to the point where a person can no longer walk or talk.
Sadly, people are so quick to give up sleep for more hours of work or recreation, probably thinking they can make it up some other day. The fact is, even a few hours of sleep deprivation can have disastrous effects. It dulls your reflexes, compromises your judgment, causes cognitive impairment, and clouds your memory. Does that sound like an accident waiting to happen? True enough, how many traffic accidents and on-the-job disasters occurred because someone dozed off? Bottom line, we need to sleep to live.
Dreams are sometimes wonderful and scary and often strange. We all may dream when we sleep. There is a small percentage of people who claim to dream in black and white. There have been multiple theories that have tried to explain this. But most significant, based on a small study, it seems that people who are over 55 may dream in black and white, from time to time, because they had little access to color television while growing up. Back when the television and movies were in black and white, more people reported having black and white dreams as well. As color TV and movies became more widespread and accessible, our dreams followed suit and took on color. This may be why people 25 and younger say they almost never dream in black and white.
Most people have a vague recollection of their dreams as soon as they wake up, but they also forget soon after. This theory makes a lot of sense considering our dreams are based on our senses and how we perceive the world. A blind person, from birth, for instance, would not “see” anything in his or her dreams. Instead, the dreams would focus more on emotions and sounds. Likewise, a hearing-impaired person would not “hear” anything in his or her dreams, and may even be doing the sign language while in that dream state.
As previously mentioned, how many days can you go without sleep depends on a lot of factors. But if even one hour of sleep deprivation can be potentially harmful, so what about going consecutive days without sleep? Amnesty International considers forced sleep deprivation a form of torture, right alongside some pretty heinous and gruesome acts. This is because the effects of sleep deprivation are well documented, and although it does not cause acute pain and it might not be the first thing that comes to mind when someone thinks of torture, sleep deprivation can break a person down both psychologically and physically. It is damaging and painful to the body, and it could have permanent consequences on the physical and mental health of a person.
Its immediate effects include extreme fatigue and hunger, and sleep deprivation hallucinations. Since it robs the body of the restorative and regenerative opportunities that sleep brings, this makes sleep deprivation all the crueler and disastrous for someone who is already sick or someone with a wound. Sleep deprivation significantly slows down the body’s natural healing process. As an enhanced interrogation technique, according to human rights organizations, it’s not even very effective. This is because it severely alters the person’s mental state, causing sleep hallucinations and lapses in short-term and long-term memory. Whatever information the person gives up would be suspect.
Sleeping and napping sound like a dream for most people. Who would not want a few extra minutes or hours of sleep every morning? Why else was the snooze button invented? And wouldn’t it be great if we can take long naps in the afternoon as they do in Spain? As far as we are concerned, the rest of the world needs to get behind the siesta routine!
But as hard as it is to believe, there are some people who think of sleep as something they would gladly do without if they could. This is because sleeping takes up precious time from what would have been several more hours of productivity, and where they could be accomplishing important work, earning more money, or pursue hobbies.
Of course, it is not always by choice. Some people would sleep a lot longer than they are doing now if they could. Perhaps their job demands long hours, or perhaps they don’t have much free time, but they just refuse to give up their hobbies and other pursuits that make them happy.
Human beings are the only species on earth who will delay sleep. Not only do we willingly delay sleep, but science is working hard on phasing out natural sleep. A huge amount of money and research hours are spent trying to discover the most efficient and safest way to keep people awake.
The result is eugeroics or a class of drugs, also known as wakefulness-promoting agents. So far, some of these waking drugs, like modafinil, are considered pretty safe; however, there may be a risk of addiction associated with these “smart drugs”. Most people rely on good old caffeine to keep them awake.