Getting a consistent eight-hour sleep every night can seem near impossible. Whether you’re staying up late to cram as a student, having a big night out or binging a new series on Netflix, hitting the sack consistently by 10pm is hard to do. Even if you’re not a night owl, you might just find it hard to get to sleep. Excessive or late-night screen time, and poor lifestyle habits such as eating big meals before bed or having too much caffeine in the day, can also impact your quality and quantity of sleep. According to the Australian Sleep Health Foundation 33 to 45% of adults sleep poorly or not long enough and inadequate sleep can have a significant impact on our wellbeing.
Impaired reaction time, judgement and vision
When 17-year-old Randy Garner challenged himself to stay awake for 11 days back in the 1960s, after just one day he had trouble with his vision and lost basic coordination – by the end he was hallucinating. While extreme, this experiment highlights how sleep deprivation impacts you physically, including your sensory and motor functions. In fact, driving while sleep-deprived can be as dangerous as driving under the influence of alcohol, as your reaction time, judgement and vision are all impaired.
Dr Melissa Weinberg from Deakin University’s School of Psychology has studied the relationship between sleep and wellbeing. ‘The first function of sleep is to refuel your body. In the first few hours of deep sleep, your body is doing all the things it needs to do to re-energise,’ Dr Weinberg explains.
Poor information processing and memory
When you’re sufficiently charged during that first period of sleep, Dr Weinberg says you then move into the rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. ‘That’s where we dream. It’s the brain replenishing and refreshing. Even though we’re asleep, our brain is awake,’ she says.
According to Dr Weinberg it’s at this time that we learn and remember. ‘If you don’t sleep, your brain doesn’t have a chance to consolidate information,’ she cautions, which means if you’re pulling an all-nighter ahead of an exam, you’re probably wasting your time. ‘If you cram you risk losing it all,’ Dr Weinberg says and adds that overall we don’t perform with mental efficiency when tired.
Interestingly, research has revealed there is a direct link between sleep and memory – our memory neurons make us feel sleepy, because we need to sleep in order for our short-term memory to be converted into long-term memory.
The all-nighter. It’s kind of a rite of passage for college students, especially during finals. But even older adults sometimes need to pull one — finishing up a work project or driving through the night. Even I’ve pulled a good number of all-nighters these last six years, writing up a blog post for the next day. Given the fact that I’m my own boss and don’t technically have any set “deadlines,” I don’t know if this makes me crazy, or dedicated, or maybe crazy dedicated. Probably just crazy.
Pulling an all-nighter isn’t the most healthy or desirable thing in the world (although it can actually produce feelings of euphoria), and doing so should be avoided whenever possible. But even the most organized student sometimes comes face-to-face with the fact that their paper is going to require more hours to complete than there are hours left in the day.
To get a unique perspective on the ins and outs of pulling a successful all-nighter, we asked a group of former Soldiers, Marines, and Special Forces veterans to share the methods that got them through combat and a host of night-ops. These men – who are all currently on staff at the BluCore Shooting Center in Denver, CO — served in the Navy SEALS, Green Berets, and the Army and Marine Infantries. (They’ve asked that we only use their first names for purposes of anonymity). For these vets, staying awake through the night was a matter of life and death, but their tips apply equally well to the civilian who needs to plow through a work or school project. In addition to their advice, we’ve provided tips from sleep experts and researchers.
All-Nighters: Avoid Them Whenever Possible
The first tip in pulling an all-nighter is actually to avoid doing it whenever you can! Depriving yourself of sleep has all sorts of deleterious effects on your body and mind, including:
- Decreases concentration. Sleep deprivation slows down the area of the brain responsible for concentration. Not good for focused study sessions.
- Hurts working and long-term memory. Your working memory is called upon for complex tasks where you have to pay attention to one thing while holding a bunch of other things at the forefront of your mind. Not only does sleep-deprivation impair this mental “scratchpad,” it diminishes your long-term memory as well. It’s during sleep that our recent memories are transferred to the neocortex to be solidified and stored. So all those facts you memorized through the night might not even be there come test time in the morning.
- Weakens immune system. While pulling an all-nighter may help you get that term paper done, you do so at the risk of getting sick right before your American History final later in the week.
- Cortisol increases. Pulling an all-nighter will probably make you feel stressed and on edge. That’s because your body’s level of cortisol (a hormone released in reaction to stress) increases whenever you’re sleep deprived. Elevated stress levels are no bueno for Spanish exams.
- Testosterone decreases. As we discussed in our series on increasing testosterone, our bodies make nearly all the testosterone they need for the day while we’re sleeping. Add the increased cortisol levels (another testosterone killer) and you’ve got a recipe for feeling like less of a man. Keep in mind, testosterone isn’t just for building huge muscles. Men with optimal levels of T have sharper minds and are more confident than their low-T brethren, two things that come in handy for all sorts of tasks.
Due to these mind-melting effects, my suggestion for students is to not pull an all-nighter when you can avoid it, and when you can’t, try to reserve it for writing papers. If you’re cramming for an exam, you’re probably better off putting in several hours of intense study, and then getting some shut-eye — maybe you won’t cover as much material, but you’ll have a better chance of remembering what you did study. With a paper, sleep deprivation will still cause your writing to suffer, but there’s no getting around the fact that finishing it will require a certain number of hours — your paper won’t magically finish itself if you leave it half-done to hit the sack.
How to Pull an All-Nighter When You Must
Alright, so pulling an all-nighter isn’t an effective or sustainable study or work strategy. But sometimes our best-laid plans go awry and an all-nighter becomes necessary. When it does, here’s how to stay awake for the duration and get the most out of your round-the-clock push.
Get Some Sleep in the Tank
“Make sure you don’t get behind on sleep. When you know an all-nighter is coming, see if you can bank a few extra hours in advance. That makes the well deeper when you have to dip into sleep reserves. This really works.” –Eric, former Navy SEAL
If you know in advance you’ll be pulling all-nighter, try to go to bed earlier and/or wake up later in the days leading up to it.
If you didn’t see your all-nighter coming, you can still fill up your sleep tank with what researchers call the “prophylactic nap.” Taking a nap of any kind boosts your memory, creativity, mood, alertness, and cognitive performance, and preventive naps have been found to be more effective at staving off the negative effects of sleep deprivation than multiple doses of caffeine.
When it comes to naps, longer is usually better, but in the short-term, a 180-minute nap (which gives you two cycles that include all the valuable stages of sleep) has been found to be no more effective in increasing cognitive performance than a 90-minute nap (just one full cycle). According to nap expert Dr. Sara C. Mednick, an hour and a half is the preventive nap sweet spot because “it will take you through a full cycle of sleep and bring you out in REM or Stage 2 Sleep, allowing you to avoid sleep inertia” (the grogginess you experience when waking up from a deep slumber). Mednick recommends taking your nap between 1-3 pm or 1-3 am, as these are “’perfect nap’ zones, where nap cycles will be ideally balanced between REM and SWS” (Slow Wave Sleep).
Keep in mind that the effects of a prophylactic nap have an expiration date — they only last 8-10 hours.
For more on what these sleep terms mean, the amazing benefits of napping, and how to optimize your naps for different situations, check out this post.
The All-Nighter Classic: Caffeine
“Caffeine works best when you are not already abusing it. If you drink only a couple cups a day you don’t need to worry. If you drink a LOT of coffee throughout the day, don’t expect the coffee at night to work quite as well.” -Eric
All of the SPEC-OPS guys we talked to unsurprisingly recommended consuming some sort of caffeine throughout the night. The trick, according to all of them, is to lay off the caffeine the day before and the day leading up to your all-nighter. Your body and mind build up a tolerance to caffeine, so if you’ve been ceaselessly pounding back the coffee all week long, it won’t have as strong of an effect during your round-the-clock vigil.
Eric also recommended mixing some sort of fat into your coffee, like grass-fed butter (which contains more healthy Omega-3 fatty acids than the grain-fed variety) or coconut oil. He says it “helps prolong the caffeine buzz.” When you add some sort of fat to your coffee, you’re adding in medium-chain triglycerides, or MCT. MCT may provide an extra shot of lasting energy. This coffee + butter concoction can also satisfy your hunger for a few hours without having to eat anything else.
Besides coffee, there are of course a wide variety of energy shots and drinks available. Whichever you choose, go sugar-free to avoid a crash. Hunter, a former Marine infantryman, recommended Rip Its — “a sort of energy drink that was ALL over, over there!”
I’ve used Military Energy Gum (formerly Stay Alert Gum) with success. Designed by Wrigley for the U.S. military, each piece of gum contains 100 mg of caffeine (for comparison, a 12 oz Starbucks coffee is about 260 mg), and through oral absorption it gets into your system faster than pills or liquids. It starts working right away and keeps you going through the long night.
No matter what caffeine-delivery system you choose, employ it discriminately. Instead of ingesting one big dose less often, which will lead to energy crashes, take smaller doses more frequently. Shoot for about 100-150 milligrams every 2-3 hours.
Not Surgeon General Approved: Nicotine
“Is it healthy? No. But neither is pulling an all-nighter. Nicotine has been used by Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines for DECADES. It keeps you busy and keeps you awake, to a degree. But, as with coffee, if you are used to dipping a can a day, then that late night dip won’t have much of an effect on you. If you are only an occasional ‘dipper’ and have a dip or two during the night to finish a project by a deadline, it can really help.” –Jeff, former Green Beret
The dip tip came up a lot from the Spec-Ops guys we talked to and I’m passing it along simply because it’s interesting. If you’re staying awake to potentially dodge a bullet, than nicotine might be the lesser of two evils. But if the only danger you’re facing is getting a C in Calculus, then I’d personally avoid the dip and cigarettes. Sleep experts and doctors would agree.
Eat Light and Lay Off the Carbs
“A large, carb-heavy meal leads to a crash. Sometimes, even eating at all leads to a crash. You need to fuel for combat operations, so missing meals isn’t a great option. But, pulling an all-nighter to finish a project at work or to drive through the night really doesn’t require any ‘fuel.’” -Eric
Sleep experts concur with this advice. When staying up all night, avoid carbs and focus on eating protein and fats (nuts, beef jerky, etc.). Keeps you full and provides sustained energy without the crash.
“Work out, walking or even working while standing. There is a proven physiological response that follows a workout. Just don’t work out too hard right before your all-nighter as this could make you tired.” –Jeff