How pulling an all-nighter affects our minds and bodies

Credit: Iona Murfitt

Marianna Marcelline
Science and Tech Editor

From weight gain to depression, here’s what’s at stake on sleepless nights

It’s 2:41 am and I am slouched over my bedroom desk. My eyes are struggling to focus on the bright screen of my laptop in front of me. As I type, I can sense that my attention span is wavering, and that my eyelids are drooping shut. My body is desperately telling me that I need some sleep. But I have other plans. I have an assignment due in just eight hours, and I know that the only way to complete it on time is by staying up the whole night.

After all, how harmful can an all-nighter really be? Surely, they aren’t as bad for us as some like to make out.

The unfortunate reality is that, yes, they are pretty damn bad for us – and counterproductive too.

For most of us, the goal of an all-nighter is to finish some coursework or revise for an exam. The problem is, sleep deprivation actually worsens our ability to memorise and affects our ability to concentrate. The areas in the brain which deal with processing and storing information can’t function properly without enough sleep. Information processed while awake is usually consolidated into our memory during our sleep. This newly acquired information is “replayed” during certain stages of our sleep, strengthening neural networks in the brain.

In terms of concentration, sleep is needed to make sure that neurons in our brains are able to coordinate information properly. When our neurons are over-worked because of sleep deprivation, our focus and vigilance drift, making it much harder to carry out tasks. In a student’s case, this would include completing assignments.

When it comes to our body, a host of other problems also come into play. One study on adolescents showed that those who slept too little were at a greater risk of developing cardiovascular problems, such as high blood pressure and cholesterol.

Certain studies have also shown that too little sleep can heighten risks of developing type two diabetes, since missing out on deep sleep changes the way in which the body processes glucose.

Sleep deprivation also lowers the body’s production of leptin (a chemical which makes you feel full) and increases its production of ghrelin (a hunger-stimulating hormone). The combination of too little leptin, and too much ghrelin, results in a higher likelihood of putting on weight.

Our mental health is largely determined by how much we sleep, and an all-nighter puts us at risk of mood swings and long-term mood disorders. While the strongly interlinked relationship between sleep and mental health is not yet completely understood, studies suggest that a good night’s sleep increases mental and emotional resilience. On the other hand, sleep deprivation heightens the risk of developing depression and anxiety disorders.

Although an all-nighter can feel like the only solution when faced with looming deadlines or exams, their potential health consequences are serious.

I did eventually manage to complete my assignment, but I didn’t follow through with my original plan. The all-nighter did not materialise. I figured out that while I would be penalised for handing my work in a day late, it would be of better quality and I wouldn’t be left compromising my health.