What are the effects of staying awake for long periods of time?

1) Dear Alice,

What are the long-term effects of sleep deprivation?

2) Dear Alice,

Me and a few friends are planning on doing a fundraiser where we stay awake for five days straight. At first it was a great idea, but I started thinking about if there might be some serious damage to our bodies for staying awake that long. Will there be any long-term or short-term damage for staying awake for five days? If so, is it safer to stay awake for three or four days?

And how long can the body really go without sleep?

Dear Readers, 

Both of you are asking valuable questions on the impacts of sleep deprivation. There’s a plethora of negative effects associated with sleep deprivation, both in the short and long term. Short-term effects of sleep deprivation can include compromised brain functioning, increases in stress levels, excessive sleepiness, and mood shifts. Long-term consequences of sleep deprivation may include increased risk of depression, hypertension, and onset or worsening of chronic health conditions (more on this later). Whether the sleep deprivation is caused by a nightly disturbance or staying awake for five days straight, it can be linked to a decline in overall performance. 

Sleep deprivation usually occurs when people reduce the amount of time they sleep. This can include once-in-a-while situations and events that are recurring that would deprive you of sleep. To avoid sleep deprivation, it’s recommended that adults sleep around seven to nine hours each night. Additionally, it’s not just quantity of sleep that matters, it’s also quality. Insufficient sleep in the short term might lead to: 

  • Slower thinking 
  • Memory problems 
  • Risky decision-making 
  • Excessive daytime sleepiness 
  • Stress, anxiety, irritability, agitation 

List adapted from Sleep Foundation 

In the long-term, sleep deprivation is associated with the increased risk of conditions like diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, psoriasis, insulin resistance, and potential sexual dysfunction. Maintaining sleep hygiene can be important for all body systems and preventing both acute and chronic illnesses. For more information, consider checking out the Go Ask Alice! fact sheet on healthy sleep habits

As for staying awake for five days, the effects of sleep deprivation hour-by-hour can be challenging to assess, partly because it’s unethical to force people to stay awake to study them. Most of what’s known comes from case studies instead. A review of these cases shows that after staying awake for one day, the body might experience symptoms similar to a blood alcohol concentration of 0.10 percent. Effects might include difficulty with depth perception, declined performance, and anxiety. Add another day awake, and hallucinations, mood swings, and feelings of depersonalization may occur. Staying awake even longer, say, up to 5 days, could lead to symptoms of psychosis, delusions, and rapid declines in mental health. 

While it’s not absolute that any of these effects will in fact occur, it’s probably best not to test it out for yourself. Even if you’re staying awake for a fundraiser, consider the following reflection questions: 

  • Would it be possible to shorten the amount of time without sleep, or take turns staying awake or napping with your friends? 
  • Would it be possible to share information about the effects of sleep deprivation with the people in charge of the fundraiser? (A fundraiser can be a way to support a great cause, but it’s great to sleep too!) 

Regardless of the reasons for sleep deprivation, there are various methods to improve your sleep, from lifestyle and behavioral changes to treatment regimens. If sleep deprivation in the short- or long-term is negatively affecting your daily life, speaking with a health care provider or sleep specialist may help determine whether there’s a more serious problem going on. 

Hope you’re able to catch some z’s!   

Last updated Dec 22, 2023
Originally published May 09, 2003