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September 19, 2016
IT ALMOST SEEMS like a rite-of-passage to pull an all nighter: staying up all night to cram for an exam or write that term paper you’ve been putting off for weeks. But despite its ubiquitous appearance, an all-nighter has detrimental effects on your body and mind. In fact, a last-minute cram session that robs you of adequate sleep may be worse than not studying at all. That’s because sleep plays a critical role in memory, cognitive function, and physical well-being.
The best way to prevent an all-nighter and its subsequent nasty effects is to manage your time effectively and not procrastinate in the first place. However, if it’s too late for that, there are a few ways to minimize the negative impact.
In order to understand the ramifications of missing out on sleep, it helps to know exactly what happens to the brain as we doze.
The sleep cycle is composed of several slow-wave sleep (SWS) and rapid eye movement (REM) stages. Each stage serves a different purpose. Sleep experts believe that the brain sorts through the day’s memories during sleep, deciding which ones are worth keeping and which to discard.
Functions of the autonomic nervous system, including heart rate and breathing, slow down during sleep, allowing the body to rest and recuperate from the day’s wear and tear.
Sleep is also the time during which growth hormones are produced, crucial for things like cell regeneration. Adults need seven to eight hours of sleep per night to accomplish all that, while teens need nine hours.
So is it a big deal to miss just one night of sleep? The short answer is yes. Inadequate sleep interferes with your ability to recall facts, nullifying the whole reason for an all-night cram session in the first place.
It also makes it more difficult to focus on a task and to retain new information, and it causes poor decision-making, a recipe for disaster if you’re taking a test. You’ll also feel short-tempered, and you’re more likely to drift off in class or while driving.
In addition to these problems, you can’t really get “caught up” on sleep. After going a night without sleep, your next sleep cycle will be abnormal because you’re in a state of sleep debt. You’ll get more slow-wave sleep and less REM sleep, hampering the processes that would normally occur in REM stages, including memory consolidation and the ability to learn complex tasks. It can take a couple nights to return to a healthy pattern.
Maybe you don’t make a habit of pulling an all nighter, but you habitually get less than the recommended amount of shut-eye. This lack of sleep adds up over the long-run, putting you at an elevated risk for numerous health problems, including hypertension, heart disease, stroke, obesity, and depression.
Inadequate sleep may also be linked to brain diseases like dementia. It could even shorten your life: people who sleep fewer than six hours per night have a higher mortality rate than those who sleep seven or more.