All-nighters suck. They really do. No matter how much fun you have the night before (if it’s a “drinking, dancing, and socializing” all-nighter), or how important that exam or report is (if it’s a work or school-related all-nighter), going a full and complete night without sleep guarantees that you’ll be a zombie the next day. There’s no escape.
You need sleep. Anywhere from 6 to 9 hours, depending on who you ask (and the “correct” number always seems to change, doesn’t it?). While you sleep, your brain recharges, your cells repair, and your body releases and regulates hormones to keep you operating at peak performance.
Anything less than that, and you’re sleep deprived. About 40% of Americans are habitually sleep deprived, and certain fields - like doctors and med school interns - see even higher rates. Sleep deprivation can lead to memory issues, weight gain, disrupted sleep cycles, irritability, increased risk of diabetes and heart disease, an inability to focus, and fatigue (of course). You can survive upwards of 40 days without food. Without sleep? You’d be dead in less than ten. THAT’S how important it is.
A recent study published in National Geographic Magazine likens sleep deprivation to being intoxicated. Would you go to work or school drunk? Let’s assume not.
Of course, sometimes it may be unavoidable. It gets harder and harder to recover from an all-nighter the older you get, but if you have no choice, you can take a few steps to make it a little less hellish. Here’s how to survive and recover from an all-nighter.
1. Get Physical
No, this does not mean hitting your local Crossfit box and tackling the new WOD (workout of the day). But a bit of mild and gentle exercise, whatever that means to you, can work wonders. Physical activity releases endorphins into your system, and these natural chemicals trigger a positive feeling. They’re the “feel good” hormones. Ever hear someone talk about a runner’s high? That’s endorphins doing their thing.
Obviously, when you’re exhausted and irritable, anything you can do to counter that is a worthwhile endeavor.
2. Get Wet
Well, hydrated to be more specific. Dehydration can cause fatigue, and that’s the last thing you need today. It’s best to drink good old-fashioned water rather than soft or energy drinks. Plain. Water. If you’re just not the “water type”, you could turn to a sports replenishment drink like Gatorade. Beyond the water, they also supply your body with carbs and electrolytes. On the downside, though, some of them are very high in sugar (over 40g per bottle), and that could lead to an eventual sugar crash. Look for reduced sugar options like Powerade Zero or Gatorade G2.
3. Get Snacking
But snack right. What do most people crave after an all-nighter, especially one spent drinking and socializing? It’s usually junk food - greasy McDonald’s, bacon and eggs, breakfast pastries like danishes, croissants, bearclaws, and so on. Resist the temptation. They’re all high in empty carbs, empty calories, and refined sugar. Basically, they do nothing good for you. Fight the voices in your head screaming “Egg McMuffin! Now!!”, and reach instead for healthy snacks. Try fresh fruit (it’ll satisfy your sweet tooth with naturally-occurring sugar...it’s nature’s candy, after all), fresh veggies (try carrot or celery sticks), lean protein like skinless chicken, or nuts (peanuts, almonds, cashews).
4. Get Walking
Even though it might be the last thing you want to do, go for a walk. Outside. In the sunshine. A quick walk is proven to wake us up, improve our mood, and increase our creativity, among a slew of other health benefits.
It’s mild exercise (which is good), and it exposes us to natural light (which is also good...see below).
5. Get Bright
Exposure to light - ideally natural, but artificial if that’s the only option - can and does help wake you up. We tend to shy away from light when we’ve pulled an all-nighter, opting instead to reside in the shadows all day, with the door closed and the blinds drawn. But that’s the worst thing to do.
Get outside in the sun, sit by a window or bright light source. It helps to reboot your internal clock (and that clock may be thoroughly confused after going without sleep for so long). Light confirms for your body what time it is, and therefore how it should be feeling and behaving. Bright light means daytime, and that means feeling awake, energized, and ready to tackle the to-do list. Exposure to bright light can “trick” your body into feeling at least a little better, and it’s even been linked to our production of serotonin, also known as the “happy hormone”.
You’ll feel better (even if only slightly), you’ll get more done (even if only slightly), and you don’t risk falling asleep in your darkened office.
6. Get Caffeinated
It seems a no-brainer. Tired, drink coffee. Feeling sluggish, drink coffee. Up all night, drink coffee. And that’s true, but only to a point. You can over do it with the caffeine.
You want to pace yourself, aiming for one cup of coffee every 3 or 4 hours. Most people need anywhere from 100-200mg of caffeine to experience the rush that we know and love. Most coffee contains roughly 100-150mg per 5oz cup (although this does vary depending on the particular roast and brew), so drink accordingly.
Want another quick caffeine hack? It takes about 15 to 30 minutes for the effect of caffeine to hit you, so some experts suggest having a cup of coffee and then lying down for 20-30 minutes...you’ll get up feeling refreshed (from the cat nap) and energized (from the glorious caffeine now flooding your system).
7. Get Napping
Yes, naps are good. Remember when you were a kid and hated being forced by a tyrannical parent or babysitter to have an afternoon nap? How much would you give for that privilege now? Naps are one of life’s simple pleasures.
So, nap if you’re able to. A quick power nap, around 20-40 minutes in length, can give you the shot in the arm you need to make it through the rest of the day. Longer than that, though, and you risk sleep inertia, that feeling of grogginess after waking up. That would be counter-productive.
A study by NASA found that pilots and astronauts improved performance by 34% and alertness by 100% after a 40 minute nap. If it works for astronauts, it can work for you.
8. Get Planning
If you know that an all-nighter is on the horizon, make sure you’re getting all the sleep you need in the days beforehand. Going an entire night without sleep when you’re already sleep deprived is a recipe for disaster, so be doubly sure you’re getting seven or eight hours each night.
The best advice about all-nighters? Don’t do them. Barring that, these tips should get you through the roughest day-after. And make sure you get a good - no, great - night’s sleep the next day. Avoid coffee and other caffeinated beverages after 6pm, and device screens (television, computer, tablet, and smartphone) at least an hour before you plan to go to bed (the blue light can mess up your sleep cycle).
Now, go get some sleep.
What’s your best piece of advice or life hack for getting over an all-nighter? Leave your ideas in the comments section below.