What an All-Nighter Actually Does to Your Body

December 15th 2015

Kyle Jaeger

Across the country, students are taking their final exams, studying for hours on end to pass their tests and move on to a well-deserved break. Out of desperation, some pull "all-nighters," which literally means working through the night without sleep. But the health effects of all-nighters raise concerns.

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A new poll from Gallup found that 40 percent of Americans get less than seven hours of sleep, and young adults are among the most likely to be sleep deprived. But not getting enough sleep is different than getting no sleep at all.

If you pull an all-nighter, you're going to struggle to remember the things you crammed the previous night.

Your hippocampus, a part of your brain that's responsible for creating and storing memories, won't be able to go through its nightly cycle of encoding information into long-term memory.

Going without sleep can interfere with your circadian rhythm.

Circadian rhythm is a biological process that is driven by an internal clock—and messing with that clock by going without sleep can affect your mood and lead to "a vague sense of nausea, fatigue, lassitude, sleepiness," BuzzFeed reports.

Without REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, you'll find it difficult to solve complex problems

And your sense of judgment will be compromised.

That's because your brain won't be as effective at using energy, which can affect the parts of your brain charged with making judgment calls such as your prefrontal cortex.

Your brain suffers from toxic metabolic buildup if you don't sleep.

"Every night when you sleep, your brain basically detoxes itself," BuzzFeed reports. "The metabolites get flushed out through a lymphatic system that runs along the brain's vasculature (called the 'glymphatic system'). But when you don’t sleep, your brain doesn’t get to detox itself, the metabolites build up, and your brain cells don’t get repaired."

Stimulants don't solve the problem, either.

If you think that drinking a bunch of energy drinks or taking ADHD medication such as Adderall is going to help you get past these health obstacles, think again. Binging on uppers is also associated with a range of negative health effects, and while it might make you feel like you're getting an edge on the competition by taking them, a healthy night's rest is still more beneficial (and less dangerous) than 24 hours of straight studying on amphetamines.

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What's more, a 2010 study from the University of Pennsylvania showed that students who took Adderall didn't perform better on tests of cognitive function—although they certainly thought they did.

"[J]ust as stimulants may impede high ability individuals in other cognitive tasks, Adderall may impair rather than enhance the creativity of highly creative individuals," the researchers concluded.