Lacking Sleep? Here's What Happens to Your Body, One Sleepless Night at a Time


Did you know: the Guinness book of world records no longer monitors the category sleep deprivation, in recognition of its severe threat to human health (they actually deem sending humans into space less perilous!).

Unfortunately, sleep deprivation is a common occurrence in our daily lives - brought about by work, school, family obligations, and recreational activities that last long into the night.

Here’s what happens to your body, one sleepless night at a time.

After 12 hours

Sleep is when the body repairs itself. Your growth hormone levels increase to facilitate repair and maintenance of muscles and bones. The muscles relax while you’re asleep in order to mend any strained fibres. Even your skin cells speed up metabolic rate with their supple dewiness by morning. Most importantly, the brain gets to work rewiring neurons and refining neural pathways to store information you absorbed during the day. When you don’t sleep, these processes necessary for resetting your body don’t happen.

Hormones for metabolism, appetite, and digestion also come out to play when you’re asleep. Chronic lack of sleep means these hormones are inhibited. There’s less insulin to break down glucose in the blood, which contributes to obesity and even diabetes.

Lastly, pushing yourself to remain awake sends the message to your body that it can’t relax. As a response, the body releases stress hormones called cortisol. Constantly elevated levels of cortisol lead to increased risk of stroke, heart attack, and other cardiac diseases.

If you’ve been awake for 12 hours, prepare to go to bed in a few hours to clock in a full night of sleep. As you’ll see below, it’s better for your health all around to have a complete eight hours of sleep a night, every night.

After 24 hours

As early as 24 hours without sleep, “simple vigilance” or the ability to concentrate on one kind of stimuli at a time goes out the window. Combined with a decreased ability to filter out extraneous stimuli, going a full day without sleep already results in confusion and impaired judgment.

Studies have compared the state of the body going 24 hours without sleep to having a blood alcohol content of 0.10 percent - you can already be considered more than legally intoxicated. So if you’ve ever been so drunk you can’t walk in a straight line, going a full 24 hours without sleep will leave you in a similar predicament. The double whammy of diminished physical coordination and impaired judgment may lead to unwise decisions. You’re better off not driving or handling heavy equipment too - delayed reaction times may lead to hazardous consequences.

After 36 hours

After 36 hours without sleep, you’ll get to the stage where you’ll experience memory impairment.  You’ll find it nearly impossible to recall faces or the right words for things. You may not even remember some of the things that happen during this stage, comparable to how your memory blacks out when you’re drunk.

Going 36 hours without sleep also results in dangerous physiological affectations like palpitations, a rise in heart rate, and variable blood pressure.

After 48 hours

At this point, if you don’t give your body any sleep, it will find a way to get rest by hook or by crook! At 48 hours without sleep, a mechanism called microsleep kicks in. Microsleeps are short, unintended episodes of drowsiness or loss of awareness that can last up to thirty seconds. Often, people who fall into microsleep are not aware of the fact, and believe that they’ve been awake the whole time.

In fact, many sleep studies show that when the brain lacks rest, it puts some of the parts not necessary for survival to sleep for a few moments to regain energy. This accounts for you thinking you’ve been awake when you’ve actually checked out for a few seconds or more.

Unfortunately, that brief window of unawareness is long enough for disaster to strike. Microsleeps are strongly related to risks for motor vehicle accidents; 16.5% of fatal crashes happen due to drowsy driving. An AAA Foundation study found that of drivers who crashed due to falling asleep at the wheel, about 50% have said they felt “not at all drowsy” or only “slightly drowsy” in the moments before the crash.

Studies have also found that at this stage, you’re likely to have increased nitrogen content in your urine, indicative of protein breakdown. You’re tearing down protein in your body instead of building and repairing tissues. Further, NK (natural killer) white blood cells drop drastically in number after 48 hours awake. This means you’re significantly more prone to catching all kinds of sicknesses after just two days with no sleep.

After 72 hours

Going so long without sleep eventually interferes with visual processing. A Stanford study claims that at least 80% of people who are severely sleep-deprived will get hallucinations. Hallucinations are defined as perceptions of things that are not there at all.

You're also just as likely to get illusions (defined as misperceptions of objects that are already there). A German study found that nurses working the night shift for three to seven nights failed a visual processing test called the Binocular Depth Inversion Illusion test. The nurses failed to recognise objects such as flowers, a house, and a chair while deprived of sleep, but they eventually passed after catching up on sleep.

It goes without saying that once you start to see things that aren’t really there, you’re in some next-level deep trouble. Get some sleep before you hallucinate yourself into serious - even mortal - danger.

Go to bed instead of reading this!

If you think you can get away with staying awake from Monday to Friday and just catching up on snoozes during the weekend, sleep doesn’t work that way. In fact, enforcing an irregular sleeping pattern like that might actually be worse. Even the slightest fluctuation in sleep habits can stress the body out - look at the 24% increase in heart attack cases in the spring when daylight savings time begins versus the 21% decline in the number when clocks are returned to normal.

If you find that your lifestyle - influenced by aforesaid school, work, family, or recreational factors - is regularly causing you to deprive yourself of sleep, strongly consider making adjustments. Whatever is keeping you up, isn’t worth putting yourself in danger or doing long-term damage to your body. In any case, you’re guaranteed to be more efficient at your responsibilities if you’ve had a full night of sleep.

Now, put your phone down and head to bed! ■