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How to survive after a night without sleep

WebMD Feature
Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks

Pulling an all-nighter is sometimes the only option. Be it cramming for exams, meeting a work deadline or dealing with an ill child, there are times when you just have to go all night without any sleep.

You just do what you have to at the time but when the day dawns you probably feel spaced out and just want to crawl into bed. That’s not always possible and you may find that surviving the day after is a bit of an endurance test.

The effects of an all-nighter

The main effect of lack of sleep is understandably feeling tired, but it affects you in different ways at different stages the following day.

"The effect of sleep deprivation on the brain is it makes it sleepy and reduces your ability to sustain attention," says Kevin Morgan, professor of psychology and director of the Clinical Sleep Research Unit at the University of Loughborough.

He says: "You can make some simple decisions like 'shall I have a coffee or a tea' but you find it difficult to make chain decisions that follow on from one another because of your attention lapses."

Feel high at first

A study at Harvard and Berkeley Universities in the US suggests a night without sleep can lead to short-term elation but also may lead to poor judgement and addictive behaviour.

Researchers studied the brains of healthy young adults and found that their pleasure circuitry got a big boost after a missed night’s sleep. However, the same neural pathway that stimulates feelings of euphoria, reward and motivation after a sleepless night may also lead to risky behaviour and impulsive decision-making.

Dr Paul Reading, president of the British Sleep Society says: "You’ll feel potentially a little agitated, tired but wired."

He adds: "The functions of the frontal lobes are particularly affected by even one night of sleep loss, such that people are inflexible, unable to appreciate humour, unable to multi-task or think laterally."

When are you at your worst?

Your need for sleep may come in waves.

"Natural dips in alertness are 3pm and 4am," says Dr Reading. "After no sleep, the circadian rhythm helps alertness through the next morning but early afternoon is very difficult."

Professor Morgan says you may get a second wind at around 10am, but after lunch you’ll feel awful.

You just won’t be able to carry on as normal for the whole day. You may even be accident prone and could injure yourself or other people.

"Frontload and make your decisions in the morning as by the afternoon you’ll be falling asleep," advises Professor Morgan.

Stack up on sleep beforehand

If you know in advance that you aren’t going to get any sleep, make sure you don’t start an all-nighter with any degree of sleep deprivation already. Make sure you are well rested beforehand. You can’t actually 'bank' your sleep but it does make the effects less pronounced.

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