WHEN SHOULD I WORRY ABOUT...

Is Pulling an All-Nighter Bad for You?

Nov. 30, 2021 - Katie McCallum

Even if you haven't successfully pulled off an all-nighter, you've likely tried to stay up all night once or twice before.

Whether skipping sleep to cram for an exam or just staying up with friends at a slumber party, pulling an all-nighter can feel like a rite of passage for a college student facing finals week or a young kid trying to fit in with new friends.

Unsurprisingly, though, pushing yourself to such an extreme comes with consequences.

"Going without sleep can affect your mind and body in a variety of ways," warns Dr. Aarthi Ram, a neurologist specializing in sleep medicine at Houston Methodist. "And missing out on sleep is especially concerning for kids and young adults, since sleep plays an important role in how both the brain and body grow and develop at these stages of life."

What's an all-nighter?

An all-nighter is defined as a single night of total sleep deprivation. That is, 0 hours of sleep.

It's a fairly common practice for students, particularly in college. One 2008 study found that 60% of college students reported having pulled an all-nighter at least once since beginning college.

"The amount of sleep we need varies from person to person, but in general most people need somewhere between seven to nine hours of sleep every night," says Dr. Ram. "Getting less than this comes with consequences, and these consequences become more and more significant the less sleep a person gets."

Is an all-nighter worth it?

In the long term, sleep deprivation increases your risk of developing:

  • High blood pressure
  • Heart disease
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Weight gain

"Staying up all night just once doesn't mean you'll develop one of these health conditions, but engaging in sleep deprivation can encourage poor sleep habits, which, over time, could ultimately impact your overall health," says Dr. Ram.

And in the moment, if that exam or paper seem too important to care about long-term health, know that sleep deprivation has immediate effects, too.

Pulling an all-nighter can reduce your performance the next day

While you might go into an all-nighter with good intentions — such as being better prepared for an important exam — the unfortunate irony is that not getting any sleep actually can negate the hard work you put in.

"Sleep deprivation affects your cognitive performance the next day," says Dr. Ram. "Your brain and body are hardwired to expect sleep. It's a time when restorative systems in your body get to work and the other systems rest. Forgoing sleep can affect everything from your mental performance to even your mood and physical performance."

Sleep deprivation symptoms include:

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Reduced ability to follow directions
  • Slow decision-making
  • Reduced ability to problem solve and think creatively
  • Difficulty retaining and forming memories
  • Increased risk taking and poor decision making

One study actually found that sleep deprivation can reduce a person's performance as much or more than being intoxicated with alcohol.

"For student-athletes, it's also important to consider how sleep deprivation might affect your physical performance the next day," Dr. Ram adds. "You might find your body and muscles getting fatigued much more quickly — which might not only make for a poor training session but could also contribute to an increased risk of injury."

Pulling an all-nighter also disrupts your sleep schedule

Even if you're not worried about your performance the next day, know that an all-nighter throws your entire schedule out of whack — particularly your sleep schedule.

"Skipping a night of sleep completely disrupts your circadian rhythm, which you can think of as your body's internal clock," explains Dr. Ram. "This clock is what keeps you on a schedule, timing important biological processes in your body, such as when you're most alert, when you're fatigued and when it's time to sleep next."

Sleep deprivation causes sleep debt, meaning that you're behind on sleep — which can be hard to rebound from.

"You'll find yourself sleepier during the daytime, and you might try taking a nap or drink some caffeine to help get you through the day," says Dr. Ram. "But, be careful, since both of these can make recovering from sleep deprivation more problematic."

If you're struggling to get back on track after pulling an all-nighter, Dr. Ram recommends the following tips:

  • Drink a small amount of caffeine. A pick-me-up can help keep you awake until your normal bedtime. Just be sure to limit how much caffeine you drink and when you drink it. Having too much caffeine or having it too late in the day can disrupt your sleep.

  • Take a short power nap, but time it properly and set an alarm. A nap can be a great way to recharge, but not all naps are created equal. Know how to plan your nap. It's best to time it for early afternoon (at the latest) and limit your snooze to between 20 to 30 minutes.

  • Set yourself up for sleep success. When it is finally time for bed again, make sure your sleep environment is cool, dark and quiet. And don't forget to set an alarm so you don't oversleep.

An all-nighter may also affect your immune system, mood, appetite and more

"One restorative process that runs in the background while you're asleep is your immune system," says Dr. Ram. "For instance, if you're ill or injured, skipping sleep may slow your recovery."

But studies also show that your immune system may do important work while you're asleep even when you're not sick. The thinking is that the immune system works on enhancing its defenses as you sleep, ultimately helping your body be better protected from illness and injury.

Sleep deprivation can also impact your mood, making you more irritable or stressed the next day. Plus, Dr. Ram notes, this can actually lead to a repetitive cycle of poor sleep.

"Sleep deprivation can increase stress and anxiety, which themselves also lead to issues like falling and staying asleep, making recovering from an all-nighter even more difficult," warns Dr. Ram.

Lastly, Dr. Ram says that disrupting the timing of your body's internal clock affects more than just your sleep cycle.

"Our circadian rhythm doesn't just time our sleep," adds Dr. Ram. "It keeps the pace for many physiological cues, including hunger, metabolism and body temperature. Disrupting this clock can affect when you're hungry, how much energy you have for your workout and much more."

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