Everyone’s had sleepless nights, and for many different reasons: a baby who doesn't sleep through the night, temporary insomnia, a late (or early, depending on the case) night, etc. Each person reacts differently to sleep deprivation, and while some will be very alert after only a few hours of sleep, others will take several days to catch up on missed sleep.
But how much time without sleep can the human body actually tolerate?
The all-time record—and still unmatched—is held by one Randy Gardner who, in 1965, at the age of 17, stayed awake for 264 hours, or 11 days! This experiment was part of a school project and after completing it, Gardner slept for 14 hours straight and took a long time to recover.
But staying awake for a long period of time is harmful to your body. Mood disorders develop quickly after several hours without sleep—your friends and family may be able to attest to this! —and if you stay awake for too long, your blood pressure and cortisol (the stress hormone) levels will skyrocket. But don't worry: this doesn’t happen after just one short night, but if you voluntarily go without sleep for many hours or even days.
The importance of sleep for the body is undeniable, even if sleep needs vary from one person to another, and even for the same person over the course of their life. In fact, while a one-year-old child needs 14 to 15 hours, an adult needs 7 to 8 hours of sleep per night, and even less as they gets older.
Can we die if we spend too much time without sleep?
Yes... and no. Researchers agree that it's probably not the sleep deprivation itself that will kill you (or those around you because of your bad mood), but all the effects it will have on your body, such as increased stress and blood pressure. And that without mentioning traffic accidents or work accidents caused by a tired person...
In short, a temporary sleep disorder, such as occasional insomnia, poses no short-term risk, but make sure you get enough sleep each night. Your body will thank you... and so will those around you!