When it comes to pulling all-nighters, We consider ourselves to be somewhat of an expert. Between Katie’s college days and a “Nutella incident” and Raina’s time spent working night shifts as a nurse and as a mom to three babies, we can pretty much say we’ve clocked our fair share of overnighters.
So what’s your story?…maybe it was an extended study session, a late shift at work, a fun night hanging out with friends, or a long and monotonous drive home for the holidays, but nearly everyone has pulled an all-nighter at some point in their lives.
While it can be fun and even exhilarating to stay up until sunrise every once in a while, making a habit of it can have some serious effects on health and productivity.
If you do find yourself facing a deadline or needing to work into the wee hours of the night, there are some safe ways to pull an all-nighter without risking your health.
So why is it that the dreaded all-nighters keep happening? Most adults understand from experience how awful going a night without sleep makes us feel, yet we persist, expecting the same behavior to somehow yield a different outcome in a hail-mary attempt to finish a project we know we shouldn’t have put off until the last minute.
In reality, all-nighters are nothing like what we see in movies. Caffeine and a can-do attitude will only carry you so far before they drop you on your face and you realize you have been reading the same sentence over and over again for an hour, only with your heart rate elevated to twice the speed of a newborn rabbit.
Sleep is a necessary element of life like water, and caloric intake. We need it to survive, and when we decide to delay the process for academic or social pursuits, there are always consequences.
Humans require a minimum of seven to eight hours of sleep each day in order for the body and brain to be able to function. Even just one single night of missed sleep can increase forgetfulness, 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 for 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.
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 has no regard to whatever situation a person might be in.
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 without allowing this function to process our memories, the information is consolidated in the short-term memory area of our brains, where the function is directly related to how well we are sleeping.
Not only does missing out on sleep negatively impact memory, but it actually activates the wrong type of memory, too. Cramming information in the wee hours of the night only uses short-term memory, the type that will stick around for a few minutes or hours and disappear.
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.
While pulling an all-nighter to study leads to short-term memory and poor recall, it also affects day-time 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 $2000 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. 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.
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 loss include the following:
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.
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?
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.
Some evidence suggests light stimulates the hormones that keep us awake and stops the body from leaning toward sleep homeostasis. The earlier your body thinks it is, the more awake you will feel.
Getting ahead on rest will boost cognitive function, improve mood, and help delay the effects of drowsiness at night more effectively than an overload of caffeine would.
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.
Don’t overload yourself. Stay on target without getting overwhelmed by only tackling one element at a time and staying organized.
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.
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.
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.
Artificial stimulants 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.
As sugar metabolizes, it is released into the bloodstream to be deposited into cells all over the body, causing a quick spike and then 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.
Getting to bed at a normal hour the next night will decrease the chance of waking early the next day and further confusing your body clock. Try to stray as little as possible from your normal schedule.
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.
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.
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.
Driving the day after an all-nighter is equivalent to driving drunk, and there are people currently serving jail time due to accidents they caused while driving with drowsiness. Even if you feel alright, your brain has the ability to seize control at any moment, and compromise your ability to drive a vehicle.
As going a 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.
Pulling an all-nighter is never 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.
 Sleep, Performance, and Public Safety, Healthy Sleep | Harvard Medical School
 Functional and Economic Impact of Sleep Loss and Sleep-Related Disorders, National Center for Biotechnology Information