Throughout our lives, we are always told that we should get a substantial amount of sleep in order for our bodies to function properly, but we are never actually told what happens when we deprive our bodies of sleep. College students are in the age range that requires seven to nine hours per night, but because of the constant stressors in our lives, our bodies are often not gifted the process it craves so badly: sleep. And, many times, we push it to the brink: staying awake for twenty-four (or more) hours.
During sleep, the body and brain cleanse themselves. During waking hours, all of our cells produce waste which turn into toxins. For most of the body, this waste is cleansed by the lymphatic system: a system which cannot cleanse the brain from harmful waste products due to a blood-brain barrier. Our brain is only cleansed of the waste products during sleep, and if we don't get it, these waste products can potentially become toxic to our systems. Now, you might be saying, “Doesn’t the brain have a way to cleanse itself without sleep?” The short answer to that question is, yes, but the lymphatic system used by our brain is up to ten times more effective during sleeping hours than during waking hours. Many of these same toxins have been linked to the onset of neurodegenerative disorders, such as Alzheimer’s.
So now that you know what exactly sleep does for our bodies, a question comes to mind: “What happens when we do pull an all-nighter?”
In short, our bodies essentially freak out, releasing incorrect dosages of chemicals that control pleasure, reward, sex drive, motivation, and many other behaviors and emotions. Most of these functions are controlled by dopamine, a chemical in the brain that controls how stimulated the mesolimbic pathway, or pleasure center, becomes.
Higher dopamine levels are great in theory, with higher motivation and a perceived boost in positivity. But the surges that lead to these feelings drive addictive behavior, and the regions of the brain responsible for planning and decision-making virtually shut off because of these rushes. This, in short, means that humans can make more impulsive decisions and are more prone to take dangerous risks when deprived of sleep.
In addition, our brains are designed to change and adapt over time to new habits and environments. This means that pulling all-nighters on any type of regular schedule can alter how our brain functions on a daily basis, even when it has received adequate amounts of sleep. These permanent changes have been shown to cause an increased chance of developing anxiety disorder, bipolar depression, as well as many other neurological disorders and mental illnesses.
Health concerns aside, not sleeping might have the opposite effect that you would like it to have on your studies. Staying up all night cramming for an exam doesn’t give our bodies time to consolidate the memories it has formed. Because of this, you’re likely to perform a lot worse if you don’t sleep before important exams, or, before anything you really ever do.
So bottom line: Do yourself a favor and don't pull any more all-nighters.
“Scientists Have Finally Found the First Real Reason We Need to Sleep” - Business Insider (pub. October 2013)
“What Happens to Your Body if You Study All Night” - The Guardian (pub. Oct 2012)
“What Happens to Your Body if you Don’t Get Enough Sleep” - The Cleveland Clinic (pub. September 2015)
Lead Image Credit: The Huffington Post