Anyone who’s faced a major deadline, whether for a project, a test in school, or an important business presentation, has probably considered sacrificing sleep in order to spend more time preparing. Pulling an all-nighter — going a whole evening without sleep — is the most extreme form of this sacrifice.
By providing more time to work or study, an all-nighter might seem helpful at first glance. In reality, though, staying up all night is harmful to effective thinking, mood, and physical health. These effects on next-day performance mean that pulling an all-nighter rarely pays off.
An all-nighter is when you skip your normal time for sleep, instead of staying up through the night. In sleep science, this type of extended period with zero sleep is known as total sleep deprivation.
If you wake up at 8 a.m. and then pull an all-nighter, at 8.a.m. the next morning you will have experienced 24 hours of total sleep deprivation. This clock keeps counting up until you get to sleep.
Although not a technical term, an all-nighter is typically thought of differently than sleep deprivation from insomnia, which occurs because a person is unable to sleep even though they have the opportunity to do so.
Instead, all-nighters are associated with voluntarily skipping sleep. They are often tied to deadlines for school or work. People who work night shifts and have daytime obligations may be forced to pull all-nighters. In other cases, a person may stay up all night for leisure, such as being engrossed in a book or TV series, playing video games, or partying with friends.
All-nighters have extensive and potentially serious negative effects. Sleep is vital to the proper functioning of the body, and completely skipping a night of sleep can harm your thinking and cognition, your mood and emotions, and your physical well-being.
Going without sleep has an immediate impact on multiple types of thinking and brain function. Total lack of sleep reduces attention span and concentration. It slows reaction time and impairs constructive thinking, which is part of emotional intelligence and how we understand and respond to those around us. Sleep deprivation diminishes mental place keeping, which is the ability to follow a series of instructions or tasks. It also restricts creative thinking and innovative problem-solving.
A night without sleep interferes with memory as well. It detracts from working memory, which is a temporary memory bank that we use for short-term needs. At the same time, research has found that people who go without sleep are at a higher risk of creating false memories, harming their longer-term recall of important information even after they’ve gone back to getting regular sleep.
Multiple studies have found that pulling an all-nighter causes impairment that is comparable to being drunk. Researchers found that after 24 hours of sleep deprivation, a person’s mental performance is equivalent to that of someone who has a blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.10%, well over even the highest legal limit for driving in the United States (0.08%).
Another major effect of total sleep deprivation is daytime sleepiness. The brain and body are used to having a period of rest, and when forced to miss this time for recovery, it’s natural to have episodes of drowsiness. Sleep deprivation can also cause microsleeps, which involve briefly dozing off for a few seconds.
The ongoing struggle to stay awake creates more inconsistency in mental performance after an all-nighter, and more effort to stay awake may pull already reduced attention away from the tasks at hand.
Not surprisingly, people in these sleep-deprived circumstances are prone to make all types of errors and mistakes. The risk of accidents increases, including potentially life-threatening accidents caused by drowsy driving. Workplace accidents can pose serious risks, especially for doctors, nurses, pilots, and people who work with heavy machinery.
Pulling an all-nighter doesn’t just interfere with effective thinking; it also contributes to various mood problems. Sleepless nights are tied to increased levels of the hormone cortisol, which is associated with stress. Relatedly, sleep deprivation is linked with anxiety that can impact both mood and behavior.
Numerous other elements of emotional mood are worsened after one night without sleep. Anger and irritability are more common, and people are more likely to feel depressed and fatigued after an all-nighter as well.
Staying awake through the night takes a toll on physical health. Fatigue and low energy levels are more frequent when the body’s body’s muscles and organs don’t have time to recover during sleep.
Impaired physical capabilities have been evident in research that found worsened performance among endurance athletes after a night of total sleep deprivation. Lack of sleep also caused them to overestimate their perceived level of exertion, reflecting the impact of an all-nighter on energy and strength.
In addition, a night without sleep raises pain sensitivity, which can lead to acute pain or exacerbate chronic pain.
Virtually all people experience negative impacts from sleep deprivation, but not everyone feels the effects in the same way or to the same extent.
Research has generally found that adults are better able to cope with the cognitive effects of an all-nighter than adolescents and young adults. Women appear to handle sleeplessness better than men but may have a slower recovery after returning to normal sleep patterns.
Effects of sleep deprivation can also be individual, and studies have pointed to the possibility that a person’s genetics may influence how seriously they are impacted by a night without sleep.
Normal sleep patterns may play a role in how someone is impacted by an all-nighter. For example, the effects may be stronger in someone who normally doesn’t get enough sleep compared to someone with a healthy sleep routine. However, even people who sleep extra hours in the days before an all-nighter still show signs of cognitive deficits when they stay awake through the night.
An all-nighter can pose even greater problems if it is a precursor to unhealthy sleep patterns. Experts recommend having a consistent sleep schedule because it normalizes your sleep times and contributes to positive sleep hygiene. An all-nighter is an extreme break from your schedule and runs in contrast to this recommendation.
However, one all-nighter does not necessarily mean a person will have sleep problems afterward. After one night of sleep deprivation, most people feel a strong urge to get back to sleeping normally, which often allows them to recover their prior sleep pattern.
The immediate effects on your mind and body demonstrate that it’s bad to pull an all-nighter. Staying up all night should never be thought of as positive or beneficial and should be avoided.
Even in circumstances when pulling an all-nighter seems like it could help, such as to give you extra time to study or work, it’s still typically a bad idea. Given the cognitive impacts of sleep deprivation, those extra hours are likely to be less helpful. They may even be counterproductive if they result in errors or false memories. Even worse, people who are sleep deprived are less aware of their cognitive shortcomings, increasing the chances of unwanted mistakes.
The risks of an all-nighter are especially worrisome for anyone who needs to drive, make important decisions, or operate heavy machinery during the day. These situations involve grave potential consequences from daytime sleepiness, microsleeps, impaired attention, decreased response time, and slowed thinking that can result from pulling an all-nighter.
Even if you know you shouldn’t pull an all-nighter, you might wind up in a situation where there doesn’t seem to be another option. These tips can help you stay awake when pulling an all-nighter.
Once you’ve made it through, the next challenge is to take the right steps to recover from an all-nighter.
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.