sweet dreams

7 things you need to know before you pull an all-nighter

"Being sane is a fragile state that depends on sleep."

by Kate S. Petersen
Originally Published: 

"Sleep is for the weak," so the saying goes. Whether it’s working late to meet a deadline, being out at a super fun party, or being up with the baby, pulling all-nighters can seem like a necessary part of life.

In reality, sleep is for the sensible. The research on sleep deprivation paints a different picture, identifying serious health consequences of poor sleep — some of the affects of which can be seen in the body after just one night.

But is there a way to pull an all-nighter safely? Inverse spoke to the experts about the ramifications of an "all-nighter." The answer is not so simple.

How much sleep do humans need?

Andrea Goldstein-Piekarski, a clinical assistant professor at Stanford University, tells Inverse the amount of sleep any one person needs can change throughout the lifetime.

The National Sleep Foundation provides the following guidelines:

  • Newborns: 14 to 17 hours (0-3 months); 12 to 15 hours (4-11 months), including daytime naps.
  • Toddlers 11 to 14 hours
  • Children: 10 to 13 hours (3-5 years; 9 to 11 hours (6-13 years)
  • Teenagers: 8-10 hours (14-17 years)
  • Adults: 7-9 hours (18 to 64 years)
  • Seniors: 7-8 hours (65 and older)

But Goldstein-Piekarski cautions “there's not one prescription for everyone.” The above guidelines are the average, but individuals may have different sleep needs depending on their health and other factors.

People often feel pressured to work all night to meet important deadlines

Carlina Teteris / Getty Images

Can humans survive on no sleep?

Eti Ben Simon, a postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Human Sleep Science at the University of California, Berkeley, tells Inverse sleep is just as important as food for survival.

“If you deny animals food or sleep, they die after 15 days in each case,” Simon says.

In human sleep deprivation studies, researchers are typically not allowed to keep people awake for more than two days because of safety concerns, she says.

The reasons why quickly become obvious.

“After about three days of no sleep, people start reporting illusions and hallucinations,” Simon says. At this stage, people are skeptical of their hallucinations, and know something isn’t quite right.

“But if sleep deprivation continues into the fifth or sixth day, they don't doubt anymore," Simon says. "They believe what they see and then a whole set of psychotic symptoms start to emerge."

"Being sane is a fragile state that depends on sleep," she says.

"The safety question should be about how you protect society from you… when you're sleep deprived."

What does an all-nighter do to the body?

Even one night of lost sleep causes a suite of physiological disturbances, which can include:

  • Changes in immune function that promote inflammation
  • Metabolic changes in the way sugar is processed, leading to a pre-diabetic state, where blood sugar levels remain elevated
  • Increased cravings for simple carbs and junk food, coupled with changes in the reward centers of the brain
  • Elevated heart rate and blood pressure
  • Declines in cognitive processing including memory, concentration, and alertness
  • Increased anxiety and depressive symptoms

If pulling all-nighters is a rare necessity, these symptoms will typically resolve after you go back to your normal sleep schedule.

But there is one major safety issue associated with pulling even just a single all-nighter.

According to a 2013 scientific literature review published in Seminars in Neurology, just one night of sleep deprivation dramatically increases the risk of motor vehicle accidents. The researchers found accidents related to sleep loss have fatality and injury severity profiles mirroring those of drunk driving accidents. Sleep deprivation impairs motor skills at a level comparable to blood alcohol levels exceeding the legal limit, the researchers found.

One study in the review found a person’s ability to stay in their lane while driving after pulling an all-nighter was similar to the ability of someone with a blood alcohol level of .07 percent.

Another study in the review found professional truck drivers who had been awake for 28 hours had reaction times similar to those of a person with a blood alcohol level of 0.1 percent.

You may know that you shouldn’t drive drunk, but sleep-deprived people tend to significantly underestimate their level of impairment.

“Even though your body, and your physiology, and your cognition are all impaired as a function of the sleep loss, your self-report of how well you think you're doing doesn't really match what the actual abilities are,” Goldstein-Piekarski says.

People are really bad at estimating how sleep deprivation impacts their function," she adds.

“The safety question should be about how you protect society from you… when you're sleep deprived," Simon says.

Driving after staying up all night is dangerous

erhui1979 / Getty Images
"Having shift work is considered by the World Health Organization as something that can probably give you cancer."

What is the best way to pull an all-nighter?

The experts and the science are in agreement: All-nighters are best avoided, or, if unavoidable, a last resort. SleepFoundation.org, an informational site related to the National Sleep Foundation, offers a few tips if you absolutely have to stay up:

  • Drink caffeine every few hours: This can help lessen cognition problems, but won’t resolve them.
  • Stay hydrated: Having to get up to go to the bathroom will keep you moving, if nothing else.
  • Keep bright lights on
  • Chew gum
  • Take breaks to move around
  • Work with a group: If you have a group task, get on Zoom together for motivation
  • Aromatherapy: Rosemary and peppermint essential oils may be helpful, as may be smelling coffee.

SleepFoundation.org emphasizes that, once you’ve made it through an all-nighter, you must recover. You shouldn’t drive the next day. The site also recommends you avoid a long afternoon nap the next day. Instead, try and wait to go to bed at your normal time to recover your typical sleep patterns.

If you’ve survived an all-nighter and effectively recovered, it’s time to look forward and think about how to prevent finding yourself in the same situation,” the SleepFoundation.org website says.

What are the long-term health effects of all-nighters?

For a healthy person, there is unlikely to be long-term health consequences from a single all-nighter.

“I think about sleep deprivation as a physiological earthquake,” Simon says. “If it's a relatively rare event… the body can recover after a couple of days."

But for people who have to lose sleep frequently, such as shift workers, the consequences of sleep deprivation are serious, Simon says.

“The body is not as good at recovering from all those multiple earthquakes and the damage is piling up,” Simon says. “Having shift work is considered by the World Health Organization as something that can probably give you cancer.”

Chronic sleep deprivation may also trigger the onset of mental-health conditions in people who are vulnerable, Simon adds.

According to the United States' National Institute of Health, other maladies linked to chronic sleep deprivation or poor sleep include: kidney disease, high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and problems fighting infections.

What are 5 strategies to avoid an all-nighter for work?

  • Weigh the consequences of an all-nighter for both your health and work quality.

Carefully examine the consequences of not getting the work done. Are you actually going to get fired or fail? Or is your boss or professor just going to be annoyed? Could you “catch up on work” over the weekend instead of trying to “catch up on sleep?” Could you ask for an extension?

If you know you have a big project coming up, get to work and allow yourself more time than you think you need

  • Reexamine your time management behavior.

Could you be organizing your days more effectively?

Burnout can lead to procrastination and low productivity.

  • Consider going to bed late and getting up early, as opposed to an all-nighter.

This will give you a little sleep, which may help you work more effectively than staying up all night

Staying up all night increases anxiety and causes changes in cognition

Lightspring / Shutterstock

Why is sleep so crucial to health?

Just as a lack of sleep causes functioning to decline, getting good sleep improves function. We all feel better after a good night's rest.

“I think it is changing, but there's still this... negative association with [prioritizing] sleep,” Goldstein-Piekarski says.

"Evidence suggest that getting enough sleep may actually boost productivity and competency," she says. “Think about how good you could be performing if you could get that full night of sleep.”

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