Are All-Nighters Bad For Your Health?

Written by

Dr. Michael Breus, PhD, DABSM, FAASM, Clinical Psychologist, Sleep Medicine Expert
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Pulling an all-nighter means intentionally staying awake throughout the night with little to no sleep. There are many reasons why people pull all-nighters. Some people sacrifice sleep in order to meet work deadlines or study for exams. Others have job schedules that require them to work through the night and sleep during the day.

With proper sleep recovery in the days that follow, an occasional all-nighter probably will not cause lasting health effects. However, research shows sleep deprivation night after night can lead to poor cognitive performance, fatigue, and higher levels of stress and anxiety.

All-Nighters Can Affect Your Health

Staying up all night can impact your physical, emotional, and mental health. Some of these effects occur immediately, while others may manifest over time.

Cognitive Function

An intentional all-nighter differs from insomnia, a sleep disorder characterized by the inability to fall asleep quickly or remain asleep throughout the night. That said, sleep deprivation from staying up all night and insomnia can both affect cognitive function in similar ways. People who pull all-nighters may experience short-term cognitive issues, such as:

  • Shortened attention span and inability to focus
  • Impaired memory and learning
  • Reduced reaction time
  • Decreased motor function
  • Elevated emotional reactions

All-nighters have been shown to impact academic performance. Students who routinely get enough sleep tend to have higher grades and are less likely to develop depression. Conversely, unhealthy sleep habits appear linked to poor grades.

Staying up all night can also affect on-the-job productivity. Tired employees are 3 times more likely to perform badly at work, and fatigue is strongly associated with workplace accidents in a variety of professions. Sleep deprivation costs employers approximately $150 billion each year due to absenteeism, reduced productivity, and accidents and injuries, ultimately leading to higher healthcare costs.

Mood and Mental Health

Going without sleep can leave you feeling irritable and moody. People who frequently pull all-nighters are at greater risk for developing mood disorders such as depression. Conversely, studies have found that treating sleep issues may help reduce mental health symptoms like paranoia and hallucinations. Over time, routine all-nighters can lead to a cycle of mental distress, poor sleep, and decreased functioning during the day.

The acute sleep deprivation that occurs during an all-nighter can lead to an increase in cortisol production. Cortisol is a hormone that serves several purposes, including response to stressful situations. Excessive cortisol production can elevate your stress levels. Sleep deprivation has also been linked to heightened feelings of anxiety.

Physical Health and Sleep Cycles

On a physical level, sleep is critical for metabolism and immune system functioning, healthy body weight maintenance, and protection against illness. Sleep also helps repair the body and boost energy levels. Even athletes and other physically active people are vulnerable to negative physical effects following a night of insufficient sleep, such as:

  • Slower muscle recovery
  • Increased pain perception
  • Reduced speed and strength
  • Poor accuracy
  • Delayed reaction time

These effects are likely to occur after 24 hours without sleep, but they are also noticeable in people who sleep just two to four hours less than the recommended amount. According to current guidelines, adults should sleep at least seven hours each night. If someone has sleep debt from an all-nighter, then nine hours of sleep is recommended.

In the long term, not getting enough sleep puts adults at higher risk for certain negative health outcomes. These include:

  • Increased weight, obesity, and diabetes
  • Hypertension
  • Heart disease
  • Stroke

As all of these conditions are potentially fatal, chronic sleep deprivation is also associated with an increased risk of death. Additionally, lack of sleep lowers immune function and makes you more vulnerable to diseases. Injury is another factor to consider. Those who don’t get enough sleep often commit more errors than they would when well-rested, and are at greater risk of being involved in an accident.

Ultimately, frequent all-nighters can be detrimental to your sleep cycle. The body adheres to a 24-hour cycle called the circadian rhythm, which synchronizes sleep-wake patterns, body temperature, meal timing, and other biological functions. Pulling an all-nighter can disrupt this pattern and disturb the balance of these different bodily processes. This may cause you to feel sleepy at inappropriate times and have trouble sleeping at night, potentially leading to further sleep disruptions.

Adolescents & High School Students

The general consensus among today’s sleep experts is that adolescents between the ages of 13 and 18 need eight to 10 hours of sleep each night. However, recent surveys show roughly 73% of teens in the U.S. fall short of this recommended benchmark. These trends are mostly consistent across different sexes and ethnic groups, though teens appear to get less sleep on average as they progress to higher grade levels.

Studies show adolescents are especially vulnerable to mood changes when they do not get enough sleep. They may become angry, confused, or fatigued after pulling an all-nighter. Sleep-deprived adolescents are also at higher risk for depression and anxiety.

Homework assignments, extracurricular activities, and other demands may force some adolescents to stay up late and not get enough sleep. Studies show those who make up for their sleep loss over the weekend are less likely to exhibit poor academic performance. Some experts argue school start times of 8:30 a.m. or later could potentially improve sleep patterns for teens. Recent survey data shows the average start time for middle and high schools in the U.S. is 8 a.m.

Short-Term Implications for Teens

  • Focus and accuracy are impaired
  • Memory and cognitive function declines
  • Decision making suffers
  • More likely to wake up irritable
  • Decreased performance in extracurricular activities

Long-Term Effects of Pulling All-Nighters Frequently

  • Increased risk of weight gain, obesity, and diabetes
  • Greater injury potential in sports
  • Behavioral issues and attention deficits
  • Poor performance in school

How to Help Your Teenager Avoid All-Nighters

High school students have many demanding responsibilities on top of the often demanding social pressures that come with being a teen.

  • Avoid caffeine: For many people, high school and college was the time when they began drinking caffeine. While caffeine in moderation won’t hurt your sleep patterns, drinking it to stay up and study at night can have harmful and long-term effects on the sleep cycle.
  • Set short, easy to meet deadlines: Procrastination often comes from the anxiety over beginning a large project. Teens can help ease this anxiety by setting smaller deadlines for themselves that are easier to meet. Instead of sitting down to write an entire essay in one sitting, start right when the assignment is assigned. For example, the first day’s goal can be to finish an outline for the paper, the second day can be flushing out the introduction, and so on. This strategy will help avoid the last-minute, up-all-night stress before the assignment is due.
  • Don’t overdo it: Applying for college, keeping up with social pressures, and keeping on top of your grades can feel like a big burden for still-developing teens. Prioritize sleep by not cramming in too many activities throughout the week.

Resources for High School Students

College Students

College students often stay up late to complete assignments and prepare for tests. Members of this population commonly experience sleep deprivation and daytime sleepiness, with roughly 70% of students reporting insufficient sleep on a regular basis.

Common reasons for sleep problems among college students include:

  • Irregular sleep-wake schedules
  • Lack of access to a quiet bedroom conducive to sleep
  • Consumption of alcohol, caffeinated beverages, and stimulants before bedtime
  • Overexposure to electronic devices in the evening
  • Late-night socializing

While current recommendations state adults should get seven hours of sleep per night, college students who sleep at least nine hours each night have a higher grade point average (GPA) than those who sleep six or fewer hours. However, evidence also suggests sleep and waking times are a stronger predictor of GPA performance. Those who go to bed and rise earlier tend to have higher GPAs than those who sleep in and go to bed later.

Short-Term Implications for College Students

  • Focus in lectures and classes will be impaired
  • Short-term memory suffers
  • Decision making suffers

Long-Term Effects of Pulling All-Nighters Frequently

  • Increased risk of weight gain, obesity, and diabetes
  • The immune system is compromised
  • Decline in overall work and academic performance
  • Increased risk of anxiety & depression

How to Avoid an All-Nighter in College

  • Don’t take too many classes: Limit yourself to what you know you can achieve. The feeling of being overwhelmed can lead to anxiety, procrastination, and all-nighters. Balance your class load with all of the other activities you have going on in your life like family obligations, work, and social responsibilities.
  • Make sure your bedroom environment is ideal for sleep: Many college students share a dorm or apartment with other students. Most likely, there will be noise and light disruptions to your bedroom environment that could lead to an unintentional all-nighter. Play white noise, use earplugs or fans to block out noise, and invest in black-out curtains to ensure light doesn’t inhibit sleep.
  • Wake up in the morning to get last-minute work done: Staying up all night to study can be tempting if you’re feeling unprepared for an exam. However, if you are fatigued, your brain will not retain the information as well. Instead, go to bed for a full night’s rest and wake up early to study before you head in to take your exam.

Resources for College Students

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Shift Workers

The term “shift worker” refers to anyone whose job schedule falls outside the standard 9 to 5 routine. According to the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, roughly 16% of U.S. employees follow some sort of shift work schedule. These schedules include evening, night, and early morning shifts, as well as split or rotating shifts.

Shift workers are particularly susceptible to sleep problems, such as daytime insomnia and excessive sleepiness. These symptoms may be signs of shift work disorder (SWD), a sleep disorder that affects circadian rhythm. Most people with SWD lose one to four hours of sleep for each 24-hour period.

Working through the night is not the same thing as an all-nighter, but if shift workers aren’t getting adequate sleep during the day, they could suffer the same effects.

Short-Term Implications of an All-Nighter for Shift Workers

  • Poor focus at work the next day
  • Greater risk of being involved in a work-related or driving accident
  • Wake up in an irritable mood

Long-Term Effects of Shift Work Disorder & All-Nighters

  • Increased fatigue
  • Impaired mood and higher risk of depression
  • Ulcers
  • Depression and social avoidance
  • Substance abuse

Shift workers who experience SWD symptoms for more than three months should consult a doctor or sleep specialist.

Sleep Tips for Shift Workers

  • Bedroom environment is key: Because many shift workers fall asleep when the sun is out, creating a peaceful environment ideal for sleep is very important. Invest in blackout curtains or an eye mask to block out light and ensure your phone is set to silent.
  • Take naps: If you can’t get a full night’s sleep, taking a 30-minute nap can reduce the effects of an all-nighter and can help you get back to feeling refreshed.
  • Set a strict sleep routine: It can be difficult to relax the mind and body after a long shift, especially if you’re trying to get to bed when there’s daylight outside. Setting a bedtime schedule will help tell the mind that it’s time for sleep. Consider taking a warm bath, drinking herbal tea, or practicing meditation in the hour before you need to sleep.

Resources for Shift Workers

Tips for Getting Through and Minimizing the Impact of an All-Nighter

While all-nighters are not recommended, they are sometimes unavoidable. This is especially true for employees who work at night and sleep during the day. Effective tactics for getting through an all-night shift include:

  • Plan for a Mid-Shift Nap: A nap can provide a much-needed energy boost for shift workers. Short naps help you feel refreshed and alert without grogginess when you wake up, so 15 to 20 minutes should suffice. Some shift workers find “coffee naps” are effective. This involves drinking a cup of coffee and then napping for up to 20 minutes, which is the amount of time needed for the caffeine to take effect.
  • Consume Caffeine in Moderation: Small amounts of caffeine every one to two hours can help you stay refreshed and alert during a graveyard shift or all-night studying session. For many, this is more effective than a large serving of caffeine when the all-nighter begins. Studies have also shown the smell of coffee can improve your alertness and memory.
  • Avoid Getting Behind the Wheel: Drowsy driving is a common factor in road accidents that occur late at night or in the early morning. Shift workers should consider a short nap prior to driving home from their job site. Pull over, preferably at a rest area, if you feel yourself becoming drowsy while driving.

High school and college students should also take certain measures if they need to pull an all-nighter. Effective strategies may include:

  • Get Some Exercise Prior to the All-Nighter: Exercising has been shown to reduce attention deficits during total sleep deprivation, so a quick workout can give you extra stamina for an all-nighter. Increased attention can also persist the following day with proper recovery sleep.
  • Chew Gum to Stay Awake: Chewing gum can elevate your cortisol levels and help you remain alert. This can be crucial during an all-nighter that involves working or studying.
  • If Possible, Print Reading Materials: Staring at a computer screen all night can result in eye strain and overexposure to blue light. Printing reading materials you need for late-night studying can help you avoid excessive screen time.

Students may also improve their sleep duration by taking classes later in the day. When classes begin at 8:30 a.m. or later, the average student sleeps 45 minutes longer – and goes to bed 15 minutes earlier – than students who attend class prior to 8:30 a.m.

Next-day planning is also important for anyone navigating an all-nighter. If you anticipate needing to stay up all night, consider the following strategies to minimize negative effects the following day

  • Catch up on Missed Sleep: You may be able to bank sleep by sleeping extra the night before your all-nighter. Studies also show that taking a 30-minute nap or sleeping longer the night after can help with recovery.
  • Optimize Your Sleep Space: A relaxing environment fosters high-quality sleep. The best bedrooms for sleep are cool, quiet, and dark. Invest in blackout curtains or an eye mask if you need to sleep during the day. Earplugs and white noise machines can also be helpful if you live in a relatively loud neighborhood, or share your residence with other people who are active during the day.
  • Get Outside: Although more research is needed, exposure to bright light is thought to increase alertness and may help you stay awake the morning after an all-nighter.

If you find yourself pulling all-nighters on a regular basis or consistently struggling to get more than a few hours of sleep at night, you may accumulate sleep debt. Long-term sleep deprivation is associated with a host of conditions including high blood pressure, weight gain, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes. This sleep pattern requires a different approach to recovery, since irregular sleeping patterns are often self-reinforcing. To promote healthy sleep, try:

  • Develop an Evening Routine: Try to go to bed at the same time every night, including weekends, and wind down for sleep with a relaxing bedtime routine.
  • Avoid Bright Light Exposure in the Evenings: Exposure to natural light during the day is integral to circadian rhythms and healthy sleep. However, light exposure at night can interfere with your circadian cycle.
  • Don’t Consume Caffeine Close to Bedtime: Tempting as it might be to drink coffee or an energy drink to stay awake after an all-nighter, caffeine can negatively impact your sleep even when you’re excessively tired. Research shows caffeine consumed up to six hours before bedtime can disrupt sleep.
  • Keep Electronic Devices out of the Bedroom: Cell phones, tablets, computers, and televisions all have screens that emit blue light. This light can impede the production of melatonin, a hormone secreted in the evening to make you feel relaxed and ready for bed. Some of these devices have filters intended to mitigate blue light interference, but the effectiveness of these filters has been disputed. Most experts agree you should limit your exposure to blue light devices in the hours leading up to bedtime.

You cannot always avoid staying up all night, but you can be proactive about your sleep hygiene. Maintaining good habits can help you bounce back sooner, and maybe even prevent having to pull an all-nighter in the first place.


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About The Author

Dr. Michael Breus, PhD, DABSM, FAASM

Clinical Psychologist, Sleep Medicine Expert

Michael Breus, Ph.D is a Diplomate of the American Board of Sleep Medicine and a Fellow of The American Academy of Sleep Medicine and one of only 168 psychologists to pass the Sleep Medical Specialty Board without going to medical school. Dr. Breus is a sought after lecturer and his knowledge is shared daily in major national media worldwide including Today, Dr. Oz, Oprah, and for fourteen years as the sleep expert on WebMD. Dr. Breus is the bestselling author of The Power of When, The Sleep Doctor’s Diet Plan, and Good Night!

  • Position: Combination Sleeper
  • Temperature: Hot Sleeper
  • Chronotype: Wolf

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