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There is much debate about the best approach to take the night before a big exam or a work assignment is due: pull an all-nighter or try to grab at least one hour of sleep. Will staying up keep the topic fresh in your mind or just make you too tired to concentrate on the exam? Is one hour of sleep really enough to make a difference?
So what are the pros and cons to all-nighters versus one-hour of sleep? We’ve looked into the pros and cons of both approaches and now it’s up to you decide which will work best for you. Is one approach better than the other? The short answer is, “that depends.” Read on for a comprehensive list and then make your decision.
It’s the night before that mid-term exam you should have been studying for and you haven’t even cracked the textbook. Time to make a decision; stay up all night and cram for the exam or study for a few hours, take a one-hour nap and then study some more? There are pros and cons to both approaches. Some are anecdotal and others are based on science. It’s also a pretty individual decision. If you’ve pulled an all-nighter before and came out unscathed, you might be OK doing it again. But all-nighters shouldn’t become the norm, according to many experts.
Pros of All-Nighters
Cram a lot into little time
Your time is limited and this might be the only way to get through the reams of information you have to learn. Experts say it’s still best to determine a plan for which information you really need to study so you don’t waste time on things that are not as important.
Once you have a plan, using a highlighter pen as you read may help you retain what’s going into your brain. Some experts also recommend listening to Baroque classical music as the tempo most closely imitates a typical resting heat beat and will keep you calm. This isn’t the time to stress.
And while you might be tempted to down gallons of coffee or other caffeinated drinks to help stay awake, too much will just make you jittery, and you may experience a bit of a “caffeine crash” just as the start of your exam or presentation is scheduled to begin. Ginseng or B12 supplements, which can give you an energy boost, are available over the counter. But do your research and talk to your doctor before taking these supplements to ensure you don’t have a negative allergic reaction and that they don’t interfere with other medications you might be taking. Taking too much B12 can
Information is freshly reviewed
Since you’ve just spent the last eight or so hours reviewing the material, it might be easier to remember than if you studied it days ago. But since memory can be impacted by a lack of sleep, this might not play out to be true for you. Is it a risk you’re confident taking? That’s up to you.
Perhaps a better tactic would be to schedule in a quick nap right after you’re finished studying but before the exam. This will give your brain time to consolidate all you’ve just dumped into it, leading, hopefully, to greater success on that exam or presentation.
Cons of All-Nighters
The need for sleep
Research has shown that humans need at least some sleep to be able to concentrate and perform daily tasks. A study out of the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School concluded sleeping helps us to process, store and retain what we’ve learned. Even as little as one-hour of sleep can help the average person. So pulling an all-nighter might have the opposite effect of what you anticipated.
There is a downside – you might wake up from a nap of one hour to 90 minutes duration could leave you more tired than you went in. You’ve activated those parts of your brain that work hard while you’re asleep and then interrupted them in their work.
It’s bad for your health
Those same experts concluded it’s bad for our health to forego sleep. Sleeping is important not only to our physical health but also our mental health.
Sleep helps to heal and repair our heart and blood vessels, and continually not getting enough sleep is linked to an increased risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes and stroke. People who get less sleep than recommended tend to gain weight as well.
We also need sleep to give our brains time to work. The brain uses our sleep time to do some pretty important things.
Research out of Harvard has found that sleep deprivation may “raise risk for, and even directly contribute to, the development of some psychiatric disorders.” These include bipolar disorder, anxiety and depression.
Pulling an all-nighter every once in a while is not likely to have a long-term impact on health, but it’s definitely not something to get into a habit of doing.
While you might get through that all-nighter seemingly unscathed, having trouble concentrating once you sit down to write that exam or give that work presentation is a good argument against staying up all night. There’s no point in knowing the information well if you then can’t concentrate enough to function. Lack of sleep also impacts our reaction time and can be dangerous if you have to drive to get to that exam or to work.
The irony is that going without sleep can also impact your memory. Since you need your memory to recall the answers to questions on that exam or details about that work presentation, missing even one night’s sleep could have the opposite effect than what you wanted. It won’t be worth it if you can’t recall that information you knew at 2 a.m. when it matters.
Lack of sleep impacts the brain in a couple of ways: it allows the brain to process what it learned that day and affix it in our memories. And it impacts our ability to learn effectively.
Three things have to happen for a memory to be formed: it has to be acquired, then consolidated in the brain through sleep and then the ability to recall it when required created. It won’t matter if you acquired some knowledge during your all-nighter if you don’t give the brain a chance to consolidate that memory.
Our brains and bodies go through a number of cycles while we are asleep called the circadian rhythm.
About every 90 minutes, an average person will cycle through what is called quick sleep and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. During the quick sleep part of the cycle, we progress through four every increasingly deep stages of sleep. At the most deep, our bodies make physiological changes that increase the function of our immune system.
We dream during REM sleep. We are also most open to learning – or consolidating what we learned during the day – during this phase of sleep. REM sleep is important for memory, learning and emotional health.
Disrupting these circadian rhythms by staying up all night can play havoc with our ability to think and recall. It can also negatively impact our emotions.
All nighter recovery
If you do have to pull an all-nighter, there are some things you can do to help your body and your brain recover.
Protein is like gasoline for our bodies so downing a protein-rich meal after you’ve been up all night will help to restart your system. Because protein is required by every cell in your body, you need it to help build and repair tissues, keep your bones strong and to make hormones, enzymes and other body fluids. Protein is a macronutrient – along with carbohydrates and fat – and our bodies can’t store it so it constantly needs to be replenished. We also need fairly high levels of protein so protein-loading after an all-nighter is a good idea, and better for the waistline than carbohydrate- or fat-loading.
Taking certain vitamins and herbs can also help you regain your equilibrium. Tryptophan, zinc, magnesium and vitamin B6 are all good for fighting fatigue. A vitamin B complex is also a good choice for getting everything you need in one dose. Particularly for women, an iron supplement can relieve tiredness.
If you prefer to go the herbal route, guarana and green coffee extract are too good choices that will boost your energy while not creating an energy “crash” later on. Beetroot powder relaxes our blood vessels while increasing blood flow and oxygen delivery, leading to an increase in energy and less fatigue. Siberian ginseng is another herb that might help fight fatigue.
Aside from supplements, there are things you can do in your daily routine to help you recover from that all-nighter. Essentially, it’s a bit like having a bad case of jet lag without the fun of actually travelling somewhere far away. Staying awake the day after an all-nighter or limiting your naptime will help to reset your circadian rhythm. The goal is to get back to your regular routine as quickly as possible. Avoiding sugar and anything else that might cause you to crash early is a good idea.
One Hour Power Naps
So if the all-nighter isn’t a great option because of the negative impacts it has on cognition, memory and our health, is getting an hour of sleep while studying enough to offset those negatives? Again, the answer is very individual – but maybe?
Pros of a one hour nap
How long to nap is somewhat dependent on the person. While I can only nap for about 20 minutes, someone else might call three hours a nap. If you’re using a nap to help you prepare for an exam, it’s all about the quality and not the quantity.
Quality versus quantity
A 2013 article in the Wall Street Journal said a 10 to 20 minute nap will give you a boost of energy and help keep you awake and alert for the following two-and-a-half hours. It might also get your mind off of how much you really would like to go to sleep.
So, rather than a full one-hour nap, a series of spaced out, shorter naps throughout the night might be better for you and your chances of success on that exam.
Rest is best
Because sleep plays such an important role on our mental and physical health, getting even one-hour of it can ensure we don’t do ourselves too much damage. If you really need to study all night long, at least find time for at least an hour of sleep. Because of how important sleep is to our health, this hour won’t be wasted.
Beginning as you mean to go on
Skipping a full night’s sleep every once in a while is unlikely to have too much of a negative impact. But this isn’t a habit you should plan to get into. The occasional odd night could led to full-blown insomnia. And trust me, I’ve been there – it’s not fun.
Night after night of interrupted sleep leaves you feeling drained and unfocused. So, if you chose this route to study for your final exam, make sure it doesn’t become a habit. Instead, study in advance, over multiple nights and try to get at least a few uninterrupted hours of sleep before the big test.
Better information retention
Now that you know you need sleep to help retain what you’ve studied, getting some sleep is better than nothing. It will set you up for a more positive and productive experience during that exam or presentation.
When should you have that nap? The obviously answer is: when you’re sleepy. But since you’re going to be sleepy pretty much throughout the entire night, try scheduling that nap in. Set an alarm. Figure out when it would be best for you – mid-way through the night or in the early morning? Maybe a few hours before you need to head to school would be best.
Age is also a factor. There is some research that indicates an afternoon nap works wonders for the teenage brain. The study, conducted by researchers at The University of Singapore, showed that a teenager’s mood, memory and cognition was better if he or she had a shorter night’s sleep and an afternoon nap, as opposed to getting a longer night’s sleep. Unfortunately, the study also found an increase in glucose levels in teenagers who slept according to this model, putting them at a greater risk for diabetes.
Ultimately, if you choose to add a short nap into that cramming session, you know your body – do what works best for you.
Cons of the one hour nap
Risk of oversleeping
You will be tired and you might sleep right through your alarm, putting all your studying efforts to waste. So, set an alarm. Set three. Do whatever you need to do to ensure you don’t sleep through your exam.
If you’re not convinced your cell phone alarm is going to be enough, pair it with a tradition alarm clock. You can also find one that has a light that flashes too. If you’re lucky, a roommate or family member can also be entrusted to wake you at the designated time.
Because the human body and our brains require approximately 90 minutes to complete one circadian cycle, an hour of sleep isn’t likely going to be enough to have a significant impact on your ability to focus and recall information the following day. If you really want to positively impact your ability to retain and recall what you’ve learned, give yourself permission to have a 90-minute nap. Just set that timer or many timers.
You can employ some of the same tips and tricks used to recover from an all-nighter to help you get back on track after a very truncated night of sleep. Try to get back to your normal routine as quickly as possible. And try some supplements and herbs to help boost your energy levels and limit fatigue.
Choose What Works Best for You
Obviously, the best choice would have been to have not left studying or for a presentation until the last minute. But it happens. Whether you chose to stay up all night or grab at least an hour of sleep you need to know what impact this decision could have on your brain and body .
Is either option really the best approach? Probably not. But if you have no choice and have to pick one, consider all the pros and cons and determine which ones you can or can’t live with. What’s more important: your ability to concentrate the next day or your active recall of details for an exam? We won’t recommend what you do – that’s personal decision.
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