All-Nighter 101

It’s 1:30 a.m. and your roommates are tucked in their beds behind closed doors. Your apartment is the quietest it’s been all day, and now you finally have a chance to open those textbooks. Your peaceful, last minute study time is only interrupted by your own unsettled mind. Aided by coffee, your trusty sidekick, you make it to 2:30 and then 3:30 without dosing off. You seem to be processing the information smoothly until you encounter a roadblock, or more appropriately, a brain block at 4:30.

You drink another cup of coffee. You struggle to read a few more pages, finding that your mind has entered automatic shutdown mode. By 5:00 you come to the realization that you’ve concentrated the remainder of your energy on merely staying awake, and decide it’s time to relent to the Sleep Gods. You wake up at 7:30 completely unsatisfied with your rest, but trudge along to class, write the essay that accounts for 30% of your final grade, and leave class knowing that you didn’t do poorly, but you certainly didn’t do your best. The information was fresh in your mind, but your mind wasn’t fresh. You know that you won’t retain most of the information long-term, which is the biggest pitfall of the last several hours. But, hey, you got to spend more time partying earlier in the week.

To many students, pulling all-nighters is an accepted part of surviving college. However, such a study technique, which typically isn’t borne out of necessity, can lower your grades and have lasting negative effects on your health. You can probably deduct on your own that you shouldn’t do it, but have you stepped aside and rationalized why you shouldn’t do it?

Immediate Effects of a Lack of Sleep

An average 18- to 24-year-old is healthy, has always been healthy, and carries at least a mild feeling of invincibility. A lack of sleep certainly won’t hinder you, an average young adult, from achieving your academic goals – at least in your tired mind. A study conducted at St. Lawrence University in 2007 found the opposite, revealing that students who have never pulled an all-nighter boasted an average GPA of 3.1, and those who rely on the tactic to study had an average GPA of 2.9. Those who have pulled all-nighters are familiar with the negative effects – grogginess, irritability, and forgetfulness – and the resulting uphill battle that accompanies a lack of sleep.

Sleep is necessary because it allows our brains to replenish themselves. Recent studies have shown that memories are preserved with good rest. One that was published in 2005 by researchers at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center found that sleep facilitates changes in the brain that improve memory. Healthy college-aged students were asked to memorize a sequence of skilled finger movements and then asked to recall them 12 hours later after a period of either wake or sleep. An MRI was used to measure brain activity, allowing researchers to determine that the cerebellum, the portion responsible for motor skills, was most active after rest. They also found that when you sleep, memory moves to your brain’s more efficient storage areas, enabling your memory to function its best when you awake.

Retaining a large amount of information at once is difficult. Studies have shown that humans typically remember the first and last things they’ve learned in the day, but the stuff in between is most likely lost. So cramming an entire subject for eight continuous hours will yield poor results. You’ll remember even less long-term, defeating the purpose of going to class. How many times have you taken a class that requires prerequisites, only to discover that you’ve forgotten a large portion of the prerequisite material?

The effectiveness of overall brain function – including reasoning skills and attention span, both of which are important for learning – are dependent on sleep. It’s difficult for a student to gain a thorough understanding of a complicated subject when one or multiple components of the cognitive process are lagging, hence the lower GPAs in the St. Lawrence University study. Less-than-stellar grades are a negative consequence of a lack of sleep, but they pale in comparison to the worst that can happen.

Essential planning and decision making regions of the brain slow because of sleep deprivation. Short-term euphoria then arises in some people, leading to poor judgment and addictive behavior, a 2011 study from researchers at UC Berkeley and Harvard Medical School indicates. It explains why you might be tempted to pull an all-nighter to experience the burst of energy that propels you to complete more laborious tasks. That feeling of false confidence actually masks the harm that can be done.

In the past, The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimated that fatigue caused roughly 100,000 auto crashes and 1,500 crash-related deaths per year in the U.S. Some of the worst human-caused disasters were at least partially the result of fatigue, including the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in 1979, which occurred at 4 a.m. during the night shift, and Chernobyl accident in 1986, which occurred at 1:26 a.m. because of confusion.

The Long-term Effects of a Lack of Sleep

A lack of sleep may not cause you to do something to harm yourself physically, but the accumulation of fatigue will likely manifest in the future. That stressed out, low-endurance feeling of constant fatigue takes a toll on your body. The Associated Professional Sleep Societies recently found that 30% of working adults of normal weight who sleep fewer than six hours per night are four times more likely to suffer a stroke. This applies to people who exercise regularly, eat right, and stay in shape – sleep is that important.

Fewer people these days – of all ages and in all walks of life – are getting the appropriate seven to nine hours of sleep suggested by the National Sleep Foundation. The average American juggles a variety of daily activities including work, running a family, and numerous other errands that come up sporadically. Younger people who haven’t yet started a family tend to invest an inordinate amount of time in their social lives. While having fun and burning off stress is a necessary part of staying healthy, too much of it can be counterproductive.

Therein lies the problem with many college students. When they aren’t pulling all-nighters to cram material before an exam, they’re pulling all-nighters at parties, drinking away memories of disappointment from exams. The rest of their time is spent working or participating in campus organizations, leaving little time for rest of any kind. This leads to an excess of stress and anxiety. You only live once, but it may not be for as long as you would like if you don’t develop healthy sleeping habits.

Valuing Your Zs

Now that you’re an adult and have control over your life, it’s important that you consistently make time for sleep. It may not seem possible with your busy schedule, but where there’s a will there’s a way. Your ability to get appropriate amounts rest is a reflection of your time management skills or lack thereof. Many students struggle with this aspect of college life from the beginning, but that can be easily remedied using a bit of common sense.

  • Plan out your schedule: Almost every professor hands out a syllabus at the beginning of the semester. Save your syllabi and plan your study schedule week to week based on them. Incorporate any other obligations you may have, such as work or participation in campus organizations. There should always be time left over to ensure you get a sufficient amount of sleep each night.
  • Go to sleep at a consistent time: This will depend on when you have to wake up and the amount of hours of sleep you need (in that seven- to nine-hour range). It’s preferable that you go to sleep the same day you woke up, meaning any time before midnight. You should allow 30 to 60 minutes of time to unwind and relax before you go to bed.
  • Build a comfortable sleep environment: You may not have an issue finding time to sleep, but your roommate or neighbor might. To compensate for potential annoyances, build the best sleeping environment possible, equipped with a comfortable mattress, fan, earplugs, and a sleep mask. If noise becomes a constant problem, hash it out with the culprit in a civil manner.
  • Take sleep medications sparingly: Inevitably you will deal with periods of high stress when you can’t fall asleep on your own. Some assistance may be necessary, in which case you should consult your campus physician, who may prescribe you a moderate amount of sleep medication. These shouldn’t be taken nightly, nor should any over-the-counter sleep medication. Using them consistently can cause dependence, which will leave you worse off than before.
  • Deal with consistent sleep issues: If you’re living healthy, managing your time wisely, and giving yourself enough time to sleep each night, yet still struggle to fall asleep or get uninterrupted sleep, then schedule an appointment with a sleep specialist. Your sleep issues could be a sign of a larger problem.