At some time or another, you’ve probably pulled an all-nighter. Maybe it was prepping for a big test or work project, or maybe it was because of a new baby or puppy. Whatever the reason, you probably also remember not feeling your best after not sleeping all night.
Have You Gone Without Sleep?
An all-nighter can cause severe drowsiness, bad decision-making, and even a dip in your immune system. The good news is, if you know you’ll have to pull an all-nighter ahead of time, there are ways that you can prep your body beforehand, and take good care of it afterward to feel as best you can.
All-Nighter Survival Tips
Putting pros and cons aside, there may be times when pulling an all-nighter is inevitable. Maybe you’ve put off an assignment until the last minute, switched to working the night shift or have a brand new baby who has their days and nights reversed, causing you to challenge your natural circadian rhythms.
Prepping for an All-Nighter
Get into the sun
Light stimulates the hormones that keep us awake and stops the body from leaning toward sleep. The earlier your body thinks it is, the more awake you will feel.
Sleep a little more in advance
Getting ahead on rest can boost cognitive function, improve mood, and help delay the effects of drowsiness at night more effectively than an overload of caffeine would.
Perform more complex tasks first
Get the tricky parts done before you get drowsy and are more likely to make mistakes or overlook key elements. As your frontal lobe slows down, so will your productivity, so tackle the meatier tasks first.
During the Night
Focus on one task at a time
Don’t overload yourself. Stay on target without getting overwhelmed by only tackling one element at a time and staying organized.
Schedule your time and set goals
Accomplishing smaller measurable goals will consistently allow you to check boxes off your list and keep you moving toward the finish line. Try setting timers for how long you will work before taking breaks.
Move your body without getting tired
The goal is not to increase exhaustion but to tell your body you are not trying to rest. Try to get up and walk around frequently to stave off drowsiness.
Drink lots of water
Water has a natural waking effect on the body and when you need to use the restroom, your body will send waking signals to your brain to encourage you to relieve yourself.
While caffeine is tempting for all-nighters, it will ultimately dehydrate you and make you jittery, neither of which is conducive to productivity. A couple of cups of coffee might get the job done, but leave energy drinks for time with increased physical activity.
Take a vitamin
Artificial stimulants, like caffeine pills, energy drinks, or other energy-producing drugs or drinks (legal or otherwise) can have dangerous side effects, so stick to natural sources of energy like B vitamins. Try a B complex or consume foods high in vitamin B like salmon, leafy greens, sunflower seeds, and yogurt.
Eat protein, not sugar
As sugar metabolizes, it is released into the bloodstream to be deposited into cells all over the body, causing a quick spike and then a drop in blood sugar, which inhibits chemicals that keep us awake, and then makes us feel tired and weak. Protein has little effect on blood sugar and can sustain energy for hours.
The Day After
Re-establish your sleep routine ASAP
Getting to bed at a normal hour the next night will decrease the chance of waking too early the next day and further confuse your body clock. Try to stray as little as possible from your normal schedule.
Nap in moderation
While short naps can help make up sleep debt, too much rest may make it difficult to get to bed later and stay asleep. Nap as much as you need to be productive and safe but no more.
Read More: Types of Naps
Exercise and frequent activity will remind your body that it is time to be awake and prevent extreme drowsiness from affecting your work performance and safety, but keep in mind that your body’s response time, memory, and decision-making are all incapacitated until you catch up.
Keep drinking water
Drinking water will help you stay alert and avoid falling asleep, but it will not resolve all your problems. Avoiding dehydration is key, and steadily drinking water may help reduce headaches.
Studies show driving the day after an all-nighter is similar to driving drunk in that both create states of impaired alertness and decision-making. Even if you feel alright, your brain has the ability to seize control at any moment, and compromise your ability to drive a vehicle.
According to the CDC, going a full night without sleep can lead to a cognitive impairment level equal to a 0.1 blood alcohol content, adding alcohol to the mix is hardly a good idea and will likely have far-reaching consequences both to health and decision-making skills.
All-Nighter Effects on the Body
Humans require a minimum of 7 hours of sleep each day for the body and brain to be able to function. Even just one single night of missed sleep can increase forgetfulness, create brain fog, and make it more difficult to retain knowledge.
Professors at the Imperial College of Medicine in London conducted a study centered on university students called Sleep and Biological Rhythms. The study reported university students on average host all-nighters a staggering 2.7 days per month, with a variety of detrimental effects on one’s health. Dr. Virend Somers, a cardiologist at The Mayo Clinic warns that prolonged sleep deprivation can exacerbate existing diseases and lessen the ability of medications to do their jobs.
“There are things that happen during sleep that carry over into the daytime and can have very dramatic effects on causing daytime disease … or on blunting the response to treatments that we have available,” he says
The study shows that a prolonged lack of sleep has an adverse effect on endocrine, metabolic, and immune pathways, which can increase the risk for type 2 diabetes, hypertension, obesity, and other life-threatening health conditions.
Learn More: Importance of Sleep for Students’ Success
If the brain has enough sleep deprivation, it has the power to recall consciousness like a power switch.
The Harvard Business Review reported a study by Dr. Cliff Saper stating the brain has the power to ignite a “sleep switch” when the homeostatic pressure to sleep becomes high enough. This is equivalent to the brain seizing the controls like a pilot and having no regard for whatever situation a person might be in.
All-Nighter Effects on Memory
Do you have trouble remembering things when you haven’t had enough sleep? This isn’t surprising. We have some bad news about that test you have tomorrow.
When we sleep, our brains commit important memories to long-term storage. When we cram or study all night, skipping that vital ingredient of sleep, we’re not actually storing the information as we would with a full night’s sleep.
So not only will you have just stayed up all night studying information that you won’t easily remember (because sleep would have helped you remember it), but you’ll also perform worse the next day. Even one night of sleep deprivation negatively impacts short and long-term memory, the ability to focus, decision-making, math processing, cognitive speed, and spatial orientation (among other things.)
If you really want to be able to retain and recall information in the long term, your best bet is to study well ahead of time, using repetition to enhance memory assimilation.
And if that’s not enough to convince you, check out these long-term effects of sleep deprivation.
Dr. Howard LeWine, the Chief Medical Editor of Harvard Health Publishing says poor sleep leads to beta-amyloid build-ups in the brain, which lead to declines in memory and cognitive function, and are even related to higher risks for dementia. Therefore, for those with a family history of dementia, sleep can be a disease-fighting technique.
The Sleep and Biological Rhythms study conducted at the Imperial College of Medicine in London found that sleep deprivation has a detrimental effect on memory filtering, meaning you may have a harder time recalling that information down the road.
All-Nighter Effects on Productivity
While pulling an all-nighter to study leads to short-term memory and poor recall, it also affects daytime productivity.
According to a study conducted by the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, the impact of exhaustion on performance costs employers an average of almost 2,000 dollars per employee annually, due to significantly worse productivity, performance, and safety outcomes.
Further, the Harvard Business Review reported that due to a process called the circadian rhythm, we are not likely to be more productive during the night hours 8. At night, our bodies lean toward sleep homeostasis, inducing a strong urge for us to retire. When we push through this feeling, we are often able to stay awake, but we sacrifice brain performance specifically in the prefrontal cortex.
Potential Dangers to Others
The Harvard Business Review reports that going without a cumulative 24 hours of sleep per week produces an impairment level equal to a 0.1 blood alcohol level. So you may consider that if you would not normally work or drive while buzzed, you probably shouldn’t do so after pulling an all-nighter either.
Missing out on sleep isn’t simply a personal health hazard; it’s a public one. Some staggering facts on the impact of sleep deprivation include the following:
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports that in 2017, over 90,000 crashes were the result of drowsy driving, with 50,000 people injured and 800 fatalities.
Lack of sleep has, in some way, contributed to the most devastating human and environmental health disasters including the Chernobyl reactor meltdown, the tragedy at the chemical plant in Bhopal, India, and the grounding of the Exxon Valdez oil tanker.
Do All-Nighters Spur Creativity?
For some people, insomnia can be the catalyst that inspires creativity. Generations of artists and inventors, including Bill Gates, the Beatles, and Thomas Edison have all equated the power of sleepless nights with their success.
Eric Epstein, author of The 24-Hour Genius argues staying up late allows us to access a part of our brains we can’t access during the day.
In an article from Time, Epstein shares that he stays up all night two to three times every month and that he sometimes works in 100-hour creative frenzies without sleep.
Epstein’s main arguments stem from the idea of “unlocking one’s brain,” a phenomenon that involves working while everyone else is asleep, and letting the creative juices flow. The idea is that the circadian rhythm subdues the frontal cortex, and unleashes creativity as it pushes us toward sleep.
The frontal cortex is responsible for working memory, planning, and attention, and it is also a major dopamine hub. When the dopamine isn’t being released, we feel exhaustion, and other parts of the brain are more active, producing a creative frame of mind for some people if they can stay awake, says Epstein.
This forms the foundation of his argument that tired people are more creative. But does science agree? Unfortunately not. While one small study did show that nighttime insomnia may slightly increase creative thinking and behavior, the opposite was found with daytime impairments.
Another study in 2006 compared creativity in 60 children from New Zealand and found a correlation between creative ability and insomnia. While scientific and anecdotal evidence confirm this link, the question remains: Does lack of sleep foster creativity, or are artistic individuals more likely to suffer from insomnia?
Pulling an all-nighter is usually not a good idea, and even when staying up all night is completely unavoidable, there is no way to avoid all of the consequences, even with proper planning. Cognitive rest is a necessary variable for health, and the better one’s sleep hygiene, the better their performance, memory, and overall health.
While staying up late may boost creativity, a variety of studies have shown it adversely affects health, memory, and productivity. When all-nighters are inevitable, the most important concern is to avoid putting oneself or others at risk and to keep in mind the short and long-term consequences.
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 “6 Benefits of Drinking Water”. UNC Health Johnston. 2019.
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 “Drowsy Driving”. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Webpage accessed December 12, 2024.
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RN, RHN, Certified Health Coach
Raina Cordell is a Registered Nurse, Registered Holistic Nutritionist, and Certified Health Coach, but her true passion in life is helping others live well through her website, www.holfamily.com. Her holistic approach focuses on the whole person, honing the physical body and spiritual and emotional well-being.