What Happens to Your Brain and Body After 36 Hours Without Sleep?

Sleep deprivation is a common issue in the modern world. First we pull an all-nighter before an exam, then we work till late to get that promotion, and then a baby is born. These and many other things make us skimp on good sleep.

And while occasionally cutting your sleep down by an hour or two may not wreck your life that much, going completely without sleep for long periods can be extremely harmful to your overall health.

Wondering what exactly happens to your brain after 36 hours without sleep?

Here’s the answer.

Cognitive Problems

The most noticeable effect of sleep deprivation is drowsiness. If you haven’t let your body restore energy levels, you may feel like a phone with a discharged battery the day after.

But it’s more than just a slow reaction and difficulty sustaining attention.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention states that staying awake for 24 hours is equal to having 0.10% of alcohol in your blood. This is more than a legal limit in all US states.

And if you stay awake further, you will get even more ‘drunk’!

But that’s not it.

By staying awake for long periods, you deplete your brain of nutrients.

Your brain runs on glucose, taking up to 20% of all glucose deposits in your body. During sleep, your body converts glucose into glycogen and stores it in the muscles and liver. Glycogen is then used to supply the organs and cells with glucose as needed. Obviously, if you don’t sleep, you have decreased amounts of glycogen in your body, so the brain becomes hungry and unable to work properly.

What’s even worse:

When you don’t sleep, waste is accumulated in the cerebrospinal fluid.

During the day, your brain generates a lot of neurotransmitters to organize the communication between cells and other divisions of the neural system. The byproducts of these reactions remain in the cerebrospinal fluid and flush away during the deep sleep stage with the help of the glymphatic system.

Now, by depriving yourself of sleep, you don’t allow these cleansing processes to happen, and your brain fluid continues to accumulate byproducts and waste.

This leads to groggy feeling, inability to focus, headaches, and even short-term memory impairment.

Also, the urge to get fast energy makes you a more impulsive eater, causing you to crave sugary sweets, baked goods, and junk food.

The Dangers of Microsleeps

Another common problem you may encounter if you stay awake for 36 hours is a microsleep episode. Microsleep is your body’s compensatory reaction to the lack of sleep.

Basically, it’s a short period of unconsciousness, which happens regardless of the activity you’re involved in. Microsleep episodes usually last from a couple of seconds to half a minute and are followed by disorientation and confusion.

And this is where sleep deprivation becomes dangerous.

If you’re driving a car or working with serious equipment that requires your precise attention, a microsleep episode can cause an accident and even become fatal.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that in 2017, drowsy driving took 795 lives.

Today the number of deadly accidents might be even higher, as many people work at night or have an irregular sleeping schedule resulting in sleep deprivation and drowsiness.

Hormonal Disruptions

Sleep deprivation also adversely affects your hormonal system. Since hormones are involved in numerous processes in your body, even the slightest disturbance in your sleep regimen may have a very negative impact.

Here are the two main risks of prolonged sleep deprivation:

  • Increased cortisol levels. Cortisol is a stress hormone. And sleep deprivation is undoubtedly a stressful situation that can significantly elevate the levels of cortisol in the blood. Which is why you may experience increased anxiety, racing thoughts, or even panic attacks. Also, cortisol negatively affects blood pressure and skin quality and may promote outbreaks and premature aging.
  • Insulin resistance. Cortisol levels also affect other hormones, particularly insulin. During a stress response, your body prepares to the ‘fight-or-flight’ mode and releases glucose as the fuel for muscle cells. Increased blood sugar levels force your pancreas to produce more insulin to get the glucose back into cells if you don’t use it. Therefore, irregular spikes of cortisol make your body cells resistant to insulin, which is the main reason for type II diabetes and obesity.

These effects appear after 24 hours without sleep and become more pronounced the more you stay awake. Top them with sugar cravings, and you get the working recipe for metabolic syndrome and many endocrine disorders.

Issues with Immune System

Finally, staying awake for 36 hours will take a toll on your immune system:

  • Decreased cytokine percentage. Cytokines are specific proteins released by the immune system. Some of them play a role in the humoral regulation of the sleep cycle, but the primary function of cytokines is protective. The levels of these proteins increase when you have an infection or inflammation flare, and they help you combat pathogens and viruses. When you lack sleep, the levels of cytokines in your blood decrease, and you may become an easy target for germs.
  • Reduced amount of antibodies. White blood cells and antibodies also need cytokines as fuel for their growth. Sleep deprivation and reduced cytokine levels affect the speed of producing new antibodies, and hence, can slow down your recovery process.

That’s why your doctor prescribes bed rest and a calm environment when you’re sick. And it’s better to follow these recommendations.

As you can see, continuous periods without sleep won’t do you any good. So, it’s better to avoid them by organizing your daily life and building a sustainable sleep routine that will help you stay healthy.

Surrey604 Staff
Surrey604 is an online magazine and media outlet based in Surrey, BC. Through writing, video, photography, and social media, we secure an intimate reach to the public. We promote local events and causes.