How Pulling An All-Nighter Affects Your Brain

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By Cory Stieg

PHOTOGRAPHED BY MICHAEL BECKERT.

When your body says, “sleep,” but your anxietysays, “not until you finish this project,” sometimes your mind gets the best of you. The next thing you know, it’s morning, and you’ve pulled an all-nighter. Whether you’re a student, a busy parent, a burnt-out employee, or some combination of all of those things, chances are you’ve been in this situation.
The morning after an all-nighter, you feel like a shell of yourself: it’s harder to concentrate, make decisions, respond to impulses, and think creatively when you’re sleep deprived. From a scientific standpoint, this all makes sense, because your body needs sleep to function, even down to a cellular level.
A 2015 study in the journal PLOS One showed that a night of missed sleep can lead to structural changes in the brain. Another 2017 study out of the University of California Los Angeles found that sleep deprivation disrupts brain cells’ ability to communicate, which is why you experience so many “mental lapses” after a sleepless night. The hormone cortisol also follows a specific pattern overnight, but without sleep, cortisol can’t drop, and your body will feel confused the next day. And finally, we also know based on animal studies that, over time, sleep deprivation can increase buildup of a protein that’s associated with Alzheimer’s disease. So, sleep is a pretty big deal.
A good night’s sleep is a reset process for the brain and body the next day, says Alexis Halpern, MD, emergency medicine physician at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center. “Sleep allows the body’s cells to reenergize, and the brain to clear waste and toxins from the day, and make space for memories and learning,” she says. Most of the time, pulling an all-nighter is not worth it, because you’ll feel both miserable and moody the next day. But sometimes, an all-nighter really is necessary.
As an emergency medicine doctor, Dr. Halpern has experience staying up all night to work a night shift in the ER. She believes you can never really “catch up” on sleep, but there are a few things she does it make her necessary all-nighters less miserable. The day before an overnight, Dr. Halpern will sleep as late as possible into the afternoon, then try to do some light exercise to get her body energized. “I eat light meals, and I only drink coffee right before I go in,” she says. “I definitely avoid a heavy dinner and make sure to bring a lot of snacks — preferably healthy, because a sugar rush overnight leads to a terrible crash at a time the body wants to be asleep.” Afterwards, she’ll come home and sleep until the afternoon, then try to go to bed at a normal time.
While the health effects of shift work are complex, Dr. Halpern says it can take a few days to get back on track with a sleep schedule like hers. Even so, she doesn’t recommend pulling an all-nighter if you have the choice. No matter how stressed you are, it’s important to remember that sleep is more than just a break from your work, it’s a complex and necessary biological process. Bottom line: You’re probably better off doing a little less work and getting a little more sleep, she says.

Insomnia Series: The Science Behind What You Should Eat for a Good Night’s Sleep

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By Sophie Medlin

Recently, researchers have been learning more about how poor sleep influences our dietary choices, as well as how diet influences sleep quality. Not sleeping for long enough or poor quality sleep are associated with increased food intake, a less healthy diet, and weight gainLack of sleep also leads to increased snacking and overeating. And it causes us to want to eat foods high in fat and carbohydrates — with increased chemical rewards to the brain when we do eat these foods.

Essentially, poor sleep drives your body to find high energy foods to keep you awake which makes fighting the cravings for unhealthy foods very difficult to resist. But, on the other hand, when we have slept well our appetite hormones are at a normal level. We don’t crave unhealthy food so much — and we can make better choices about what to eat.

See also: Learning Language in Deep Sleep Isn’t Just Science Fiction Anymore

The Science of Sleep

All cultures around the world have traditions about which foods promote sleep. Foods such as milk, chamomile, kiwi fruit, and tart cherries, have all been said to work wonders for a good night’s sleep. Given how much the food we eat affects us on a day-to-day basis, it is not surprising that our diet plays such a big role in our quality of sleep. What we eat also has a big impact on our organ function, immune system, hormone production, and brain function.

A really important hormone that controls our sleep patterns is melatonin. Melatonin is produced in the brain and the amount of melatonin you produce, and how efficiently our brain uses it is affected by our diet. One of the biggest influence on our melatonin levels appears to be our intake of a type of proteincalled tryptophan. Tryptophan is an essential amino acid — the building blocks of proteins. Essential amino acids are a group which our bodies cannot make; it can only be sourced through diet.

sleeping cat
Eating and drinking for better sleep is about more than just avoiding caffeine.

Other nutrients that appear to be helpful for sleep include B vitamins and magnesium. This is because they help tryptophan to be more available in the body. If your diet is lacking tryptophan, B vitamins, or magnesium, it is very likely that your melatonin production and secretion will be affected and your sleep quality will be poorer.

Eat to Sleep

It stands to reason then that following overly restrictive diets or diets that put you at risk of nutrient deficiencies can really affect your sleep. But by increasing your intakes of foods rich in specific nutrients, it may well help to promote better sleep quality and duration.

Dairy foods, for example, can be great at helping you sleep. Not only is dairy an excellent source of tryptophan, but it also contains magnesium and B vitamins which help to promote the activity and availability of tryptophan. Nuts, like dairy, also contain all the nutrients known to promote increased melatonin production and support its release.

salmon

Fish is a great source of tryptophan and B vitamins. Fish with bones, such as sardines, will also provide magnesium. Including fish in your diet regularly may help to promote healthy melatonin production when you need it. Pulses, beans, and lentils also contain high amounts of tryptophan and B vitamins. Adding some tofu or paneer to a vegetable stew or curry can also help to increase your likelihood of having a great night’s sleep. You could also add in some soya — which is another good source of tryptophan — to optimize your sleep potential.

See also: Doctors Identified Risk Factors for a Potentially Violent Sleep Disorder

And if you’re still struggling to sleep, it might be that you’d benefit from some meat. Meat of all kinds contains all the essential ingredients for a good night’s sleep. So if you can’t nod off at night, maybe think about adding some lean meat to your diet.

If you find yourself hungry before bed, for the ideal bed time snack, try a glass of semi-skimmed or skimmed milk, a small banana or a few nuts — all of which can really help to improve your sleep and your willpower the next day. It’s also worth pointing out that it takes around an hour for the tryptophan in foods to reach the brain, so don’t wait until just before bedtime to have your snack. And it’s also advisable to have a balanced diet that includes plenty of foods that are high in tryptophan throughout the day to optimize your chances of a good night’s sleep.