Pushing through the night to study, work, or respond to an emergency can feel downright heroic. You did what you had to do, against the odds.
But once the adrenaline wears off and daylight comes, you may suddenly be a little unsteady on your feet. Surviving the day after an all-nighter can be more difficult than it was to stay awake in the first place.
A night of sleep deprivation affects your brain -- how quickly you can react, how well you can pay attention, how you sort information or remember it. In fact, studies have shown that after an all-nighter, you may be functioning at a similar level as someone who is legally drunk.
You may feel the worst effects just as the next day is beginning.
“You would think you would be the most impaired the longer you’re awake, but that is not the case,” says sleep expert Dr David Dinges, editor of the journal SLEEP.
Because of the natural flow of your body clock, or circadian rhythm, “you’re actually at the worst 24 hours after your habitual wake-up time," Dinges says. "You’ll have an unbelievably difficult time staying awake and alert.”
That is also the worst time for you to get in a car to drive home. “If you stayed up all night, you should not be driving. You are impaired,” says Mark Rosekind, PhD, a fatigue management expert. The monotony of the road, combined with your sleep deprivation, can cause you to fall asleep uncontrollably, he says.
The British Sleep Foundation campaigns for people to regard driving while tired as they do driving while drunk. A 1999 Gallup survey assessed the scale of sleep-related disorders in the UK. A preliminary finding was that 11% of those interviewed admitted falling asleep while driving.
Your brain will help you through
If you need to continue to work, your brain will try to compensate for the sleep deprivation.
In a study using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), 16 young adults who had not slept for 35 hours completed tasks of increasing difficulty. Activity increased in several regions of the brain, as they essentially summoned more “brain power” than they needed when they were well rested.
“[Sleep-deprived people] can call on cognitive resources they have that they normally don’t need to use to do a certain task. That allows them to perform reasonably well, but they still don’t perform at normal levels,” says psychiatric researcher Dr Sean Drummond.
Your body clock also will give you a periodic boost, as it triggers a wake signal in your brain. You may feel a second wind in the mid-morning (around 10 a.m.) and again in the early evening (at 6 p.m. or 7 p.m.). “You may feel better, but you’re still likely to be forgetful, slower to react, and less attentive," Dinges says.
Fortunately, there are some things you can do to improve your alertness and make it through the day after.
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