Studying and Pulling an All-Nighter – Is it Worth It?

An age-old slumber party activity is pulling an all-nighter. Kids get together and see who can stay awake the longest. This may seem like fun at the age of twelve, but these all-nighters aren’t as exciting when we're older.


If you or your child hasn’t studied, yet they have an important exam the next day, going without sleep in order to study may seem like a good idea. An all-nighter is when you choose to skip sleep and time spent on your water pillow and instead stay awake. Essentially, it’s conscious sleep deprivation. Unlike insomnia, where you cannot sleep despite your best efforts, an all-nighter is when you consciously try to stay awake all night. For example, you may continue to drink coffee throughout the night, snack on sugar, and keep the lights on.   


student with coffee keeping him awake while studying at night


A deadline such as an exam, project, or presentation looms, and they don’t have enough time during the day, so they attempt the all-nighter. They sacrifice their sleep to get it all done but is it really worth it?


To determine if studying and pulling an all-nighter is worth it, you need to understand the importance of sleep on cognitive function. When you are sleep deprived, your brain function and ways of thinking are compromised. In 2020 a study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology looked at the effects of total sleep deprivation. The researchers found that when you are sleep deprived, you have slower reaction time, impaired constructive thinking, reduced understanding and concentration, and a shortened attention span. So how well do you think you are studying and retaining information when you can’t concentrate?  Not well!


Further, when you are sleep deprived, your memory function is severely reduced. When writing an exam, you rely on your memory. You need to recall the information you’ve read, heard in lectures, and studied. Without memory and recall, this information is inaccessible. An all-nighter compromises your working memory, where much of your last-minute studying is stored. This means that even if you spent 6 hours during the night studying important dates, statistics, and names for your history exam, you are unlikely to recall them the next day.


A study published in the Journal of Sleep Research found that sleep deprivation can also increase false memories. In the study, researchers looked at the impact of sleep deprivation on young males in their mid-twenties. The researchers found that sleep-deprived young men were more likely to recall misleading information during memory retrieval. These created false memories won’t help during a test, presentation, or exam! The research found that once the young men returned to a proper sleep schedule and got enough sleep, they had accurate memories and recall.


sleep deprived man


Some have compared pulling an all-nighter to being drunk. Not only will you not perform well on a test, but you can also become a hazard on the road. When you pull an all-nighter, you have the mental equivalency as a person with a blood alcohol level of 0.10%, which is over the legal driving limit. So cognitively, writing an exam after an all-nighter is like writing an exam drunk. Most people would never even consider writing an exam after a few drinks, yet many students still believe that pulling an all-nighter will help them get a better grade. This is why understanding the impact sleep has on cognitive function is so important.


Even without pulling all-nighters, college students are at significant risk for sleep deprivation. They often sacrifice time on their water pillow each night because of increased social commitments, school demands, employment and sports. According to a survey by the University of South Florida, more than 70% of students get less than eight hours of sleep, and more than 80% say that a loss of sleep negatively affects their academic performance.  


When a college student stays up all night studying, it isn’t just the exam that will be impacted. The rest of the day will become a mental write-off.  The brain needs sleep and will do what it needs to get that rest. This is why you can experience microsleeps when you are sleep deprived. A microsleep involves sleeping for a few seconds, sometimes without you knowing. It can then happen during your other classes, while driving, or at work. This means you won’t retain any information that day and are more likely to make mistakes or get in an accident. 


Both college students and adults are often under high degrees of stress. School, work and competing demands at home can put a lot of pressure on us which can increase anxiety and negative moods. An all-nighter can worsen mood significantly as sleep deprivation adversely affects hormone levels, contributing to mood issues. For example, the stress hormone cortisol increases when you don’t get enough sleep. High cortisol levels can cause increased blood pressure, inflammation, weight gain, and suppress the immune system. Further, just one night without sleep can make you feel more angry, irritable, anxious, and depressed.  


cortisol increases when you don't get enough sleep


There are significant physical effects of an all-nighter beyond increased cortisol levels. You will feel more physically tired during the day but will also have decreased physical performance. This is especially important for athletes. College athletes have additional schedule demands that can lead them to pulling an all-nighter to complete their school work  - but this isn’t without a cost! Research published in the Journal of Sports Science found that endurance athletes had worsened performance and impaired physical capabilities when sleep-deprived. Additionally, sleep deprivation caused the athletes to overestimate their level of exertion.


An all-nighter doesn’t only impact that one night and the following day – it can cause unhealthy sleep patterns. Without a proper sleep schedule, you are more likely to experience trouble falling asleep and staying asleep. For example, let’s say you pulled an all-nighter studying for a science exam. You write the exam at 9 AM before heading to your next class at 11 AM. You finish school at 3 PM and immediately head to bed for a nap. Because you haven’t slept in over 24 hours, you are sleep deprived and exhausted, so you nap for 6 hours, waking up at 9 PM feeling energized. In most cases, you now won’t be able to fall asleep by 11 PM but you need to get up at 6 AM for work. This means you don’t fall asleep until much later and only get a few hours of sleep before work. This cycle can continue to repeat itself until you make the effort to get back on a proper sleep schedule. The good news is you can get back on track quickly if you limit your nap time. You can read more on napping for health, healing, and profits here. With a short nap and a solid sleep the next night, you can recover and maintain a healthy sleep pattern.


As you can see, pulling an all-nighter isn’t worth it. Sleep deprivation's adverse effects on your mind and body can do more harm than good.  Studying throughout the night is counterproductive and can get you an even worse grade than if you just got a solid night's sleep. Ideally, you should plan ahead to ensure you have enough time to both sleep and study but in some cases, it may be impossible.


If you were unable to avoid an all-nighter due to an unfortunate situation, there are ways you can make the most of your day. First, drink plenty of water and eat healthy. When you are sleep deprived, you are more likely to crave sugar, which can make you feel worse. Instead, get all your macronutrients in and drink plenty of water. You will likely need caffeine to help give you that extra boost but don’t drink it too late in the day or it can interrupt your sleep later. You should also try to get some light exercise in. Moving your body can actually make you feel more energized, despite decreased performance and endurance. Spend time on your yoga cushion doing some light stretching to upbeat music.


Despite an all-night not being worth it, you will still find many online threads and even University message boards sharing ways students can successfully pull an all-nighter. There are some cases, like finishing an essay or project, where it may be better to stay up at night to complete it than receiving an incomplete. In this case, keeping the lights on, taking regular breaks, drinking caffeinated drinks, and listening to upbeat music can help keep you awake.


student looking at university message board


When drinking caffeine, stick to coffee, tea, or soda. According to Student Tom Beardsworth, an all-nighter expert, you should avoid energy drinks. He says they are more or less evil as “you peak and then crash, your energies having been expended on staring at the wall excitedly.” Some quick cardio exercises like jumping jacks, dancing, or a brisk walk can also help keep you alert. If you pull an all-nighter, get back on track immediately and try to sleep an extra couple of hours the next night.

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