Balancing your life can be a lot of work and every so often you’re bound to be a day late and a dollar short—so you stay up all night to wrap up whatever it is you forgot.
Maybe it’s cramming for a final, finishing up a presentation you forgot you had, or just plain struggling to fall asleep, whatever your reason, all-nighters happen. While making a heroic effort to get things done feels good in the moment, the impact even one missed night of sleep can have on your health is a big deal, and you should take note before procrastinating on that paper.
What happens to your body if you’re awake for 24 hours straight? Prolonged sleep deprivation can lower your sex drive, weaken your immune system, and make you more accident-prone, among many other things. Basically, it’s really bad for you over time, but is it a huge deal every once and awhile?
In an effort to better understand how sleep, or lack of, can change our physical health, plenty of studies are published yearly revealing just how important a good night's sleep is to our overall health.
In 2015, after 23 hours without sleep, caffeine, alcohol, or nicotine, a group of 21 participants were scanned to observe the brain activity of what are otherwise healthy young men. Researchers found the white matter of their brains changed significantly, meaning the connectivity of their brains was slowed after just one night of missed sleep. What isn’t clear, however, is how quickly that brain matter could shift back when catching up on sleep. It can be hard to determine how long it takes to undo the damage all-nighters can cause–it may not be worth the risk to your brain function.
24 hours without sleep can also make you hungrier. Studies have shown that lower amounts of sleep correlate with higher BMIs, likely because the hormones that make you feel full and satisfied are decreased by sleep deprivation.
Sleeping is also the key to committing those newly-learned lessons throughout the day into your long-term memory. Without quality sleep, everything you picked up during the day becomes lost to your short-term memory, making you an ineffective learner. If you’re routinely pulling all-nighters to study, you’re actually doing more harm to your learning in the end.
Other noteworthy effects of 24 hours without sleep:
- Your ability to think is basically on par with someone who had a few too many cocktails
- Your risk of diabetes, heart disease, and cancer all rise
- Your hand-eye coordination suffers
- Your overall performance can slip by about 25% for every missed night
How much sleep is enough to get by? If an all-nighter is out, what’s the minimum amount of sleep you need to get to still function the following day?
In a late-90’s study, the Hospital at University of Pennsylvania’s Sleep and Chronobiology Laboratory aimed to determine the impact sleep deprivation over time. The participants were divided into three groups and assigned 8, 6, and 4 hours of sleep with cognitive function testing periodically throughout the day. The study ultimately found that for most people, a few days of missed sleep drastically impacted their ability to perform tasks and for some the effect hit after just night one.
The most interesting result, however, was that those who has the biggest lapse in performance often reported they didn’t feel sleepy at all—so we’re not exactly good judges when it comes to whether or not we’re tired. The study concluded that anything less than 6-7 hours of sleep is very likely to affect most people significantly. Everyone has totally different sleep requirements, but the National Sleep Foundation recommends 7-9 hours a night for the average adult. A small percentage of us might be able to get away with 6 or 10 hours before experiencing any adverse effects, though we might not even be aware that we’re suffering.
The truth is, one missed night of sleep can make a pretty big difference—research shows that just one sleepless night has an immediate physical and mental impact. Your body’s internal clock is thrown off, your glucose levels elevate, and your cognitive function falls short even if you don’t notice. The longer you push through without sleep, the worse these effects become.
Pulling an all-nighter might seem like a good (okay, necessary) plan at the time, but the long-term effect it can have on your health might not be worth the risk.