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Why All-Nighters Are "All Bad" for You

Burning the midnight oil can come with dire health consequences.

Key points

  • Even short interruptions in normal sleep patterns can impact mental health.
  • The adverse effects of all-nighters include anxiety, attention loss, and pain.
  • All-nighters rarely make for productive study sessions.

People pull all-nighters for all types of reasons. Underprepared students studying for final exams, for instance, may cram all night. (They may then pull another all-nighter partying after exams are finished.) Parents working various jobs to survive may pull all-nighters to keep their homes in order. And then there are those who struggle with insomnia, who are subjected to the torture of sleepless nights. But whatever the reason, all-nighters wreak havoc on health.

Let’s take a look at the evidence underlying the impact of short-term sleep deprivation.

Feelings of pain

Sleep deprivation impacts pain perception in unusual ways, according to results of a study by UC Berkley professor Matthew Walker and co-authors, which was published in the Journal of Neuroscience.

Even short bouts of sleep deprivation, such as the occasional all-nighter, amplify pain reactivity in fundamental physiologic ways—or at the level of the somatosensory cortex. In their studies, the researchers demonstrated that pain thresholds were lowered in response to temperature cues.

Nevertheless, they found that sleep deprivation blunted pain reactivity in higher-order, decision-making regions of the brain, such as the striatum and insula cortex. When functioning normally, these higher-order neural systems assess pain signals and mediate the release of the body’s own painkillers.

Taken together, these findings indicated that all-nighters not only increased pain experienced but also decreased the body’s intrinsic ability to mitigate this pain.

Time for the jitters

Disruption in sleep patterns is a hallmark of anxiety disorders. In a study published in Nature, Matthew Walker and co-authors found that subtle reductions in sleep lead to next-day anxiety akin to that experienced with psychiatric conditions. These effects are mediated by changes in prefrontal cortex activity and link to the limbic regions. Importantly, non-rapid eye movement (NREM) experienced during sleep can quell this anxiety.

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“We have identified a new function of deep sleep, one that decreases anxiety overnight by reorganizing connections in the brain,” said Walker in a news release. “Deep sleep seems to be a natural anxiolytic (anxiety inhibitor), so long as we get it each and every night.”

Mental lapses

For those who have ever pulled an all-nighter in an attempt to (unsuccessfully) cram for a test, it may come as no surprise that research demonstrates that sleep deprivation not only saps attention but also working memory. Without these two faculties at your disposal, it’s difficult to score well on an exam.

In addition to these more basic cognitive functions, Kimberly Fenn and co-authors found that sleep deprivation may also impair higher-order processes. In a study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, participants who were sleep-deprived scored lower than controls in measures of placekeeping, which refers to the ability to keep tabs on one’s place in a task.

What can be done?

If it’s within your capabilities to eschew all-nighters, then it’s probably a good idea to do so. The Sleep Foundation recommends a number of sleep hygiene tips that may help you get a good night's sleep.

For instance, it’s a good idea to go to bed at the same time every day—even after a bad night’s sleep or on days off. It’s also a good idea to sleep in a cool room (65 degrees F) and dim the lights an hour before bedtime, with all electronic screens powered off. If you can’t sleep, get out of bed and do something until you feel sleepy. Importantly, it’s a good idea to avoid caffeine and alcohol several hours before sleep, as these both interfere with rest.

For those planning on pulling an all-nighter before a big exam, do so cautiously. According to the experts, studying several days before an exam in several 30-minute bursts is a much better approach. Furthermore, information assimilation occurs best during the morning and afternoon and not at night. Often, cramming just results in short-term memory storage that lasts only a few minutes; information is not truly synthesized.

"The problem is our society thinks in sound bites," stated David Earnest, a sleep researcher with the Texas A&M College of Medicine, in a press release. "We believe we can comprehend information at the last minute, which is unwise .... Establishing good habits early on is the key to success."

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