Just How Bad is Sleep Deprivation?

Sure, everyone pulls an all-nighter every now and then. You’ve probably experienced for yourself those symptoms often associated with lack of sleep – tiredness, grumpiness, confusion and a general slowing-down of your reactions and concentration.

But then you make sure you have an early night and “catch up” on the missed sleep, and – voila! – you’re as good as new again (By the way, you can’t actually ‘catch up’ on missed sleep – our bodies don’t work that way – but usually a long sleep after an all-nighter helps to restore us back to a healthy state).

But what if we just stayed awake? How long is it possible to last without sleep?

View our interactive timeline detailing the effects of sleep deprivation and the official longest record of sleeplessness.

The Importance of Sleep & Why We're Not Getting Enough

We spend roughly a third of our lives asleep, and it is known that quality sleep is essential for a long and healthy life. Professor Russell Foster, chair of Circadian Neuroscience and head of the Sleep and Circadian Neuroscience Institute at the University of Oxford (phew!), said:

Sleep is the single most important health behaviour we have. It affects everything from our day-to-day functioning to our long-term physical and mental health.

However, more of us than ever seem to be struggling to remain in a consistent and good sleeping pattern. At any time, 1 in 3 of us in the UK suffers from sleep problems – more of us than ever before.

Why is this? There are a number of theories, including the rise of electronic gadgets, increases of stress in our lives etc.

The truth is, our lifestyles have changed dramatically from those of our ancestors, and it appears that our sleep is suffering as a result.

Notable Disasters Caused By Sleep Deprivation

Just 24 hours of sleeplessness results in a mental impairment equivalent to being too drunk to drive a car. This puts the effects of sleep deprivation into better perspective and enhances just how important sleep is to all of us.

There has been a variety of tragic disasters in history linked with the effects of sleep deprivation. The three most notable are probably the incidents occurring at Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and the Challenger Space Shuttle:


Chernobyl has been described as the world’s worst nuclear disaster. One of the argued contributing factors for the explosion of the nuclear power plant in Ukraine was the 13+ hour working shifts of those employed at the station.

Three Mile Island

Another nuclear incident, this time in the US, happened in Pennsylvania in 1979. Shift workers didn’t notice the power plant losing coolant, which eventually resulted in the overheating of the reactor’s core. The accident was later attributed to human error due to sleep deprivation.

Challenger Space Shuttle

In 1986, the Challenger space shuttle exploded after its launch, killing all seven crew members. According to a later report published in 1988, certain managers involved had only slept for two hours before starting their shift of the launch. The Presidential Commission on the accident admitted the danger of sleep deprivation, writing:

The willingness of NASA employees in general to work excessive hours, while admirable, raises serious questions when it jeopardizes job performance, particularly when critical management decisions are at stake.”

But what really happens to us if we just stop sleeping?

We’ve done the research, and we’ve found out exactly what happens to our bodies and minds when we resist the urge to fall asleep.

Discover the effects of sleep deprivation, and the longest official record of sleeplessness, by visiting our sleep deprivation timeline HERE: