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Up All Night: Just How Bad Are All-Nighters?

Are all-nighters a hidden source of productivity or a harmful drain on health and wellness? Get the facts before tackling the night.
Up All Night: Just How Bad Are All-Nighters?
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There are seemingly endless reasons to pull an all-nighter: exams, finalizing an important pitch to clients, a birthday bar crawl, trying to earn more experience points in Farmville. Both college and the “real world” have their fair share of sleepless nights. While crankiness and moodiness are tell-tale signs of no sleep, research suggests a surprising plus to staying up: short-term euphoria (the body’s natural high).

Not Enough Time In The Day — Why It Matters

Using MRI to study 27 young adults, researchers found participants who pulled an all-nighter experienced (short-lived) bouts of euphoria and heightened positive feelings. But it's not all lollipops and double rainbows.

While any lack of sleep causes a boost in dopamine (the neurotransmitter linked to pleasure and happiness) levels, it can also potentially lead to risky behavior due to a surge of overly optimistic emotions. It turns out lack of sleep switches the brain from rational-based decision making to the emotionally charged fight-or-flight mode. This may not seem like a huge deal for college students (that’s just another Friday night frat party), but for doctors, pilots, accountants, or lawyers it may be a serious side effect to consider.

Yet sleep deprivation is no laughing matter. One study showed that lack of sleep impairs cognitive performance, knowledge retention, and awareness [1].

No Sleep ‘til Brooklyn — The Answer/Debate

Although some studies have found sleep deprivation to be beneficial in severely depressed patients, nearly any positive effects wear off after a nap [2]. As for studies that champion the pros of foregoing sleep? Well, there aren’t any.

So, will one night of sleeplessness cause a lifetime of drowsiness? No, a good night’s rest will restore the body, but just don’t go for that fifth Red Bull on a daily basis. Long-term dangers of all-nighters include a reduced learning ability and increased likelihood of anxiety disorders  [3]. Other potential hazards include weight gain, an increased risk of diabetes, and potential brain damage.

Despite the dangers, pulling an all-nighter is a choice that many time-crunched people make. Even the most dedicated night owls should consider taking a break to sleep (even if it's just for a couple hours) to re-charge the body's batteries and reduce one’s overall sleep debt. Don't be surprised if productivity improves as well; a rested brain is good for business (or that final paper).

Do you still pull all-nighters? What are your secrets for staying productive late at night?

Originally posted April 2011. Updated April 2012.

Works Cited +

  1. Circadian and wakefulness-sleep modulation and cognition in humans. Wright, KP., Lowry CA., Lebourgeois, MK. Department of Integrative Physiology, Sleep and Chronobiology Laboratory, University of Colorado, Boulder, USA. Frontiers in Molecular Neuroscience, 2012;5:50
  2. Sleep deprivation and subsequent sleep phase advance stabilizes the positive effect of sleep deprivation in depressive episodes. Albert R., Merz A., Schubert J., Ebert D. Psychiatrische Universitätsklinik mit Poliklinik, Erlangen. Der Nervenarzt. 1998; 69(1): 66-69.
  3. Overnight Therapy? The Role of Sleep in Emotional Brain Processing. Els van der Helm, Walker MP. Department of Psychology, University of California, Berkeley, Berkeley California. Psychological Bulletin 2009 Sept; 135(5): 731–748.

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