According to your brain, going to bed late is just like taking 4 shots of whiskey
When pulling an all-nighter to study for midterms or finish a big presentation for work, you're basically showing up drunk to these things the next day. Long periods without sleep causes the brain to function in the same way it would if you had a blood alcohol level of 0.10 — equivalent to about 4 shots of the good stuff in under an hour.
Lack of sleep doesn't discriminate either, it causes everyone to have trouble with memory, concentration, cognitive function and physical functions like balance.
Humans are diurnal beings, meaning we do what we do during the day and have to sleep at night to recover. But life isn't always like that for one reason or another for everyone. Yet with the (comparatively) recent advent of electricity and higher stress situations, scientists are finding that sleep disruption is cause for all kinds of ongoing problems.
The science of sleep is fairly new, and is an area of study founded by Dr. Nathaniel Kleitman who began observing sleep cycles in the early 20th century. Since, the topic has been booming, with plenty of psychologists, doctors, neurologists and graduate students analyzing their efforts of watching people sleep or stay awake for science.
They've realized there are two types of sleep deprivation: One is when you stay awake for a solid length of time in one stretch — 24, 36, 48 or more hours with no sleep. The other is when you chronically get less sleep than recommended over a longer period of time — 2, 4, or 6 hours a night on average. Both hit your body hard.
In reality, it doesn’t take much. One Harvard study explains that a lack of sleep, especially when over a period exceeding fourteen days or more, has a lot of short term and long-term consequences:
“In the short term, a lack of adequate sleep can affect judgment, mood, ability to learn and retain information, and may increase the risk of serious accidents and injury,” the study says. “In the long term, chronic sleep deprivation may lead to a host of health problems including obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and even early mortality.”
Even just one-and-a-half hours less than the normal, recommended amount of sleep has an impact. As such, one research team found the effects of an all-nighter impacts your brain in different areas, such as the prefrontal cortex or systems where emotional input is a strong factor.
In extreme cases, like after 24 hours of staying awake, the brain starts shutting down systems unnecessary for survival.
In one such case, Randy Gardner, a high schooler at the time, stayed awake almost 11 days straight for a science fair — the current world record. Several studies show those 11 days, or around 264 hours, is about how long a person can go without any sleep before they die.
And even though Gardener was technically awake, he was so cognitively impaired he couldn't really function. He was just not dead.
“I mean, it was crazy,” Gardner once told NPR. “You couldn't remember things, it was almost like an early Alzheimer's thing brought on by lack of sleep.
The Chronic Sleep Dep
Chronic sleep deprivation is going with less than necessary sleep for a length of time. Millions of people struggle with this, especially those with sleep disorders, like insomnia. Yet even just busy people with a lot of obligations, work, school, social life and so on, may be getting less sleep than they need are actually chronically sleep deprived.
It can be just as severe as when Gardner stayed away for well over a week. Getting just six hours of sleep, instead of the recommended eight, has the same results on the brain’s performance as staying up for two days straight.
If you're chronically sleep deprived for two weeks, you're proven to be functioning like you're drunk.
“You couldn’t pay me to stay awake that long again,” Cari Thompson, 20, says of her previous battle with sleep deprivation. “I had a horrible headache and I really was emotional. I couldn’t stop responding disproportionately with my emotions. My dollar got stuck in a vending machine and I started bawling.”
Society, as a whole, doesn’t get enough sleep to be healthy.
What is important to note though, participants in sleep studies were almost always unaware of their own decrease in mood and cognitive function with less or no sleep. People often don't realize what sleep deprivation actually does to them. This prevents a lot of people from seeing the need to actually make sleep a priority.
Yet scientists agree, sleep is sometimes more vital than healthy eating for physical and emotional health.
“I was up a little over 40 hours and I felt like crap,” says Greg Gonzales, a 52-year-old trucker sharing one of his worst experiences of having to stay awake for work. “I was seeing stuff that wasn't there and I could barely focus on anything. I remember getting to one of the buildings, but having no idea how I actually got there.”
“I realized how dangerous not getting enough sleep might be when I didn't know how I got where I was,” Gonzales adds, “and I really tried to make sleep more of a priority, especially when I was working.”
The Good News
Unless you’re staying up long enough to die, the effects of sleep deprivation are somewhat reversible by just a few good nights of sleep.
After sleeping for 14 hours, world record holder Gardner says that when he woke up he was fine, a little groggy, but nothing out of the ordinary.
“I went right back to the regular mode,” he said. “Everything was fine. Strange, isn't it?”