Posted on Categories Discover Magazine
We need sleep to strengthen our memory banks, keep our moods on an even keel, flush out toxins and balance hormones in our bodies. Without it, we eventually become an agitated, delirious mess.
Take the case of an espresso-drinking 18-year-old who skipped sleep during a class trip to Italy and eventually had to be hospitalized:
“At some point, I tried to speak exclusively in rhyme. On another day, I renounced speech altogether. I remember telling people that circles were divine and instituting a policy of smacking my head when I made mistakes, finally breaking my own glasses with one blow.”
Typical symptoms of sleep deprivation are less remarkable and include fatigue, sludgy reaction times, memory problems and difficulty focusing. One becomes legally drunk after just 24 hours awake, according to the CDC.
Read More: How to Recover From a Sleepless Night
Most records for staying awake stand on shaky grounds, by scientific standards, although Guinness recognized several before announcing in 1997 that it would no longer sanction insomnia on safety grounds and because of a rare, fatal disorder (Fatal Familial Insomnia) that causes the condition.
As such, Guinness rejected the 2010 claim of a 28-year-old Los Angeles celebrity photographer that he stayed awake for 968 hours, or more than 40 days, with the help of a “team of monitors” who made sure he didn’t doze off.
Guinness last extended a record in 1986, to stunt man Robert McDonald, who rocked in a restaurant’s rocking chair for 18 days and 21 hours, a quieter task than his past stunts but not an easy one. “I’m ready to collapse,” he told a reporter, “because I have had a hard time keeping any food down.”
A 1964 record withstood some immediate scientific scrutiny in the form of a convertible-driving sleep researcher who tagged along with 17-year-old Randy Gardner, who stayed awake for 11 days. But later experts argued he wasn’t fully awake as he experienced frequent “microsleeps” lasting a few seconds.
Scientific studies investigating the effects of sleep deprivation generally keep human subjects awake for only 24 to 72 hours, for ethical reasons. Researchers have found gradual declines in reaction times, working memory, attentiveness, math abilities and decision-making.
A 2004 study that kept 21 volunteers awake for 36 hours on three different occasions found that some people suffered the above consequences, while others seemed to possess a special resistance to sleep deprivation and loss of mental functioning.
Read More: What Happens When We Go Without Sleep?
In 2012, a 26-year-old Chinese man died after staying up 11 nights in a row to watch the European Championship soccer matches on TV, while smoking and drinking beer. He reportedly returned home after watching the last game with friends, took a shower, fell asleep at about 5 a.m. and never woke up.
A doctor from the local emergency room later said the man “was in good health. But staying up through the night and not sleeping enough weakened his immune system, and he drank and smoked while watching the [games], triggering his condition.”
Sleep deprivation also plays a role in a rare genetic disorder, Fatal Familial Insomnia (FFI), that slowly deprives its victims of the ability to sleep over the course of about 18 months (or longer) and eventually kills them. A prion disease like Mad Cow Disease, FFI causes agonizing panic attacks and paranoia other psychiatric symptoms, including depression.
The nervous symptoms are merciless and “marked by increased heart rate, blood pressure, temperature, sweating, breathing and stress hormones,” according to Sleep Foundation.
FFI sufferers share much in common with delirium tremens, aka severe alcohol withdrawal, with its hallucinations, extreme anxiety and high blood pressure. But instead of lasting several days, FFI can go on for years as dementia sets in, along with difficulty speaking and moving. At some point, the person may lose the ability to sleep completely, and inevitably, they will fall into a coma and die.
Norepinephrine, a stimulating neurotransmitter, surges through the bodies of both DT and FFI sufferers, while the nighttime peak of melatonin, the sleep-inducer, somehow never happens.
Read More: Why You Should Avoid Coffee Late at Night