The Problem with All Nighters

by Sheela Doraiswamy on September 24, 2012

You have that big exam tomorrow at 8:00AM.

You knew this was coming, but for one reason or the other, you’re feeling unprepared. Maybe you procrastinated because you found that Season 4 of Parks and Recreation  is finally on Netflix. Perhaps leveling up again in Skyrim seemed more important last week when you had free time. Or maybe you just couldn’t fit studying in with all those other classes and extracurriculars.

Whatever the reason, you now have no choice but to pull that dreaded All Nighter– a night of cramming and total sleep deprivation. Ok, pulling it off is tough, but in the end all that cramming instead of sleeping will give you a good score, and help you get that high GPA you need, right?

Well…maybe not. As recent studies have shown, the college right-of-passage may be hurting your grade, and affecting your health as well.

If you’re one of the many college students who has pulled an All Nighter, I can bet that most of the next day, you felt kind of like this:

Comic courtesy of Justin Boyd

That’s because a night of sleep loss reduces your cognitive function the next day, making it hard to focus and increasing your tendency to “zone out,” among several other things.  A recent study published in the Journal of Sleep Research entitled, “The Effect of Sleep Loss on Next Day Effort” ,found that after a full night of sleep deprivation, students had slower reaction times, trouble concentrating and decision making, and reduced effort (meaning they were more likely to choose to perform simpler tasks and give up on difficult tasks compared with students who had had a good night’s sleep). It sounds like most of those functions are pretty important come exam time!

Surprisingly, this study also found that sleep-deprived students had the same perceived level of effort as students who had gotten a good night’s sleep. What this means is that, when you pull an All Nighter, you’re not consciously aware that your effort is reduced. That’s why you usually come out of that post-cram session exam thinking, “It wasn’t that bad!”, when in reality, you probably struggled through it, and were not performing to the best of your ability. What’s worse, if you’ve decreased your effort for the day, as the study implies, you’re more likely to procrastinate, and you’re just going to end up pulling yet another All Nighter down the road.

Not only will that All Nighter hurt your grade, it can have negative health effects as well. Unfortunately there has not been much study on physical effects of sleep loss on college-aged students in particular, but studies on slightly older adults have found that sleep deprivation can alter hormone production. A study published by the Journal of Clinical Neurology, “Adverse Effects of 24 Hours of Sleep Deprivation on Cognition and Stress Hormones,”  found that sleep loss increased production of the stress hormone cortisol, which can weaken the immune system, increasing your likelihood of getting sick.  Sleep loss also slightly decreased production of thyroid hormones, which can lead to tiredness and weight gain.

Now that you have all this info, the next question, of course, is “How do I avoid pulling an All Nighter?”

Unfortunately, that’s a difficult question to answer, since it will vary a lot by your reason for pulling one in the first place. I can tell you from experience, the times that I pulled an All Nighter myself, it was the result of disorganization and procrastination, but I’ve seen other students who would have no choice, because they’re so busy with their job, other classes, and extracurriculars. For those of you in the former group, the best advice I can give is to learn to stay on top of your work. I found this video that has some hopefully useful techniques against procrastinating so you can get the ball rolling.