Most of us have the occasional all-nighter, where we stay awake for a day, all night, and then another day before finally getting to bed. We might do it because there’s an amazing party we don’t want to miss, an exam we need to study for, we’re doing long-haul travel and we can’t sleep, because of a medical condition, a game or book we must finish, or we need to work a long shift.
How does an all-nighter impact our brain and behaviour? If you’re regularly pulling all-nighters, could you experience long-term consequences?
What happens to your brain when you pull an all-nighter?
Research shows that for the first 16 hours we’re awake, our bodies and brains function as normal. During this time we’re productive and have full use of our short- and long-term memory.
After sixteen hours (and usually with the onset of darkness) our bodies start to produce the hormone melatonin. This indicates that it’s time to go to bed and recharge for the next day. If you continue with your tasks, you’ll discover your performance deteriorates, getting worse and worse over the course of the night. By 6 AM the following morning, your functioning will be at a minimum.
As the sun rises, your melatonin production decreases and you may experience an improvement in performance, but it won’t get back to normal levels until you have a night of good, restful sleep.
If our performance is so severely impaired, then why do we keep pulling all-nighters, and why does it sometimes feel good?
All-nighters and temporary euphoria
Researchers at UC Berkeley and Harvard Medical School have discovered that when a healthy adult misses a full night’s sleep, their brain gets a mega-dose of happy feelings. This accounts for watching the sun-rise after staying up all night and feeling amazing.
The problem is, this some brain circuitry that experiences euphoria is also responsible for addiction and risky behaviour. A sleep-deprived brain can flip from extreme to extreme, and no longer has the ability to make sound judgements.
Sleep deprivation also shuts down the key parts of the brain responsible for reasoning and planning, while activating primal neural functions like “fight-or-flight.”
All this adds up to a brain and body that hasn’t had the rest it needs to make sensible decisions or carry out tasks in a safe manner. That’s why it’s so important to focus on getting good, restful sleep and keeping the all-nighters to an absolute minimum.